Before dying by lethal injection on March 5, 2020, death row inmate Nathaniel Woods requested a last meal of sweet potatoes, spinach, a chicken patty and leg quarter, cooked apples, fries, two oranges and an orange-flavored drink. Woods had only taken one bite when corrections officers escorted him into the execution chamber. He was pronounced dead at 9:01 p.m.
The last meal is a ritual granted to some condemned prisoners in the United States and various countries around the world. Although the custom has a rich and controversial history, last meals evoke a morbid curiosity and leave many people wondering, “What would I choose as my final meal?”
True crime fan and recipe developer Ashley Lecker explored death row last meal requests in her new book The Serial Killer Cookbook, which pairs trivia with recipes of the meals murderers ate during their final hours. A&E True Crime spoke with Lecker about her research, the ripple effect of some crimes and the surprising facts she uncovered about the killers and their last meal requests.
What were some of the more common last meal requests?
As I researched last meals, one theme stuck out: southern comfort food. This makes sense because capital punishment is something that’s more widely used in the south than in the north. Often, death row inmates choose pies, and I’ve included a variety in the cookbook.
Fried chicken and chicken fried steak, which are popular southern dishes, were also common among last meals. But ice cream and milkshakes topped the list. Almost every person, if they requested dessert, wanted some type of ice cream. I would say about 80 percent chose this frozen treat. [Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh had mint chip ice cream and William Bonin [the Freeway Killer] requested chocolate ice cream.
What were some of the more bizarre or exotic last meal requests?
There are several [last meal requests] included in the cookbook that really stand out to me. One is from Robert Buell [who was convicted of the murder of an 11-year-old girl]. He requested a single black, unpitted olive. For the book, what I did is a single-olive tapenade recipe. Typically, tapenade will have a couple different types of olives, but this recipe has only one type of olive in it.
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As I looked at the more exotic requests, I tried to figure out how I could make them into acceptable recipes that people would want to prepare and eat. One recipe that took a while to work through and figure out was from Odell Barnes [who was convicted of the 1989 murder of a nurse]. What he requested for his last meal wasn’t even food. He requested justice, equality and world peace. How could I turn this into a tangible recipe? So, what I did for him is a bread recipe. I included a lemon and olive oil infused butter, thinking of it like the olive branch he was extending and tying it into something that people could create.
Another bizarre request came from [double murderer] Thomas Grasso, who wanted canned spaghetti, but they gave him SpaghettiOs® instead. He was so upset his last words were that he wanted to have it on record that they didn’t honor his choice. I didn’t honor it either. I included a recipe for homemade SpaghettiOs® in the book, a nostalgic childhood favorite for many of us.
There are other people who just ordered really large quantities of food, including Gary Carl Simmons, Jr. [who killed and dismembered his drug dealer]. Simmons ordered a 29,000-calorie meal. He ate part of it, but not all of it, because of its large size.
Rickey Ray Rector—convicted and executed for the 1981 murder of a police officer and notorious for shooting himself in the head and causing a lobotomy— asked for pecan pie, but then said he’d ‘eat it later.’ Did any death row inmates outwardly refuse their last meals? If so, who refused and why?
There were some that refused, and sometimes last meals aren’t even served on the date of the execution. Sometimes it’s a few days before because people will be so nervous that they won’t eat it. [Serial killer] Ted Bundy refused his last meal request. He was still given one, but he didn’t eat it. I don’t know why, because he never made a statement about it. He just kind of ignored it.
Philip Workman, [a cop killer], refused his last meal too. Instead, he wanted a vegetarian pizza to be delivered to a homeless individual, which the prison did not honor. When the community found out about his request, they started ordering pizzas and giving them to individuals who were homeless.
[Serial killer] Aileen Wuornos also declined her last meal. She ate from the canteen. In her case, she was nervous and just didn’t partake in it.
One of the more well-known people [who refused their last meals] is Lawrence Russell Brewer, [a white supremacist convicted of the murder of a Black man]. He requested a large meal and then refused it. Soon after, in 2011, Texas stopped providing the last meal.
In addition to recipes, ‘The Serial Killer Cookbook’ includes trivia and true crime facts, less the gory details. What was the most surprising or shocking bit of information you uncovered?
Often, the ripple goes out a lot further than just the crime committed. Many crimes influence legislation, crime prevention and pop culture.
I did a lot of research with public records and legislation. For example, Brewer killed a Black man by dragging him. It was a hate crime and because of the connection to that crime, and later the murder of Matthew Shephard, a gay man, Congress passed legislation for victims of hate crimes.
Are there any last meal requests you can’t get out of your head?
Bonin is one that stuck with me because he’s one of the last people I researched. I was familiar with his case and knew it would be a difficult one to read about because he killed young boys. He shared his last meal of ice cream and pizza with his attorney and others. It struck me as such a strange thing to do. There can be this kind of disconnect between them being everyday people and people who committed heinous crimes. They have these human moments.
Another one that has stuck with me is Joe Arridy. He requested ice cream and is one of the only people in the book where his confession [to a rape and murder] is believed to be false. He had a very low IQ and mental health issues. It’s now widely accepted that he [was wrongfully convicted], but he was still executed.
How did you feel about the general concept of the last meal while researching and writing this book?
I don’t love the idea of a last meal and understand why states take it away. It’s very symbolic within our culture as this process that people go through before they die. If you look at the people featured in this book, their victims were deprived of a last meal. They weren’t afforded a chance to request some large meal and then refuse it out of spite. So, I don’t fault states at all when they rescind this right. I wouldn’t even call it a right. It’s more of a privilege.