A Feast for the Dying

By Heitman, Danny | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

A Feast for the Dying


Heitman, Danny, Phi Kappa Phi Forum


As he was dying of cancer in 1996, former French President Francois Mitterand arranged to have a final meal--a repast worthy of a man who counted food as a spiritual experience.

The menu included oysters, foie gras, capon, and, finally, ortolan--a tiny bird, consumed whole, that's supposed to represent the French soul. It's now illegal to eat ortolan, since there aren't that many of them. Or so I learned in "The Last Meal," Esquire journalist Michael Paterniti's elegiac account of flying to France, then recreating and eating Mitterand's final repast.

As Paterniti reports, Mitterand knew that his culinary swan song would, indeed, be his last trip to the dinner table because he'd decided to stop eating after it was through. He died a few days after polishing off the last course, getting it down with copious amounts of red wine.

Not all or even most of us will have the luxury of knowing when our last meal will be. But Paterniti's story got me wondering about what, were I given the chance, I'd choose for my end-of-life menu.

I hail from Louisiana, where many people share Mitterand's French ancestry, and where, in a nod to the culture, at least half of each day's conversation is about food. The subject of last meals would surely prompt some lively arguments among the neighbors.

A source of debate might involve whether, in bidding adieu to the kitchen, one should follow the philosophy of Marcel Proust, who wrote one of the most famous food scenes in all of literature. In Remembrance of Things Past, a character based on Proust himself munches a madeleine, a sublime French cookie that prompts a flood of memories. …

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