By Paula Johnson
Photo: Nibbles’ Maria Walusis would serve her Grammy’s holiday turkey dinner
In keeping with this issue’s theme, I thought I would ask a few chefs and notable personages to imagine what their last meal would be like. I asked them to think about what they would eat, whether it would be in a restaurant or made by them, who would be there, what would they drink, and whatever other details they wished. I received a range of thoughtful and delicious responses, which follow. Everyone took this seriously, giving much thought and descriptiveness with their answers, so I prevailed upon my esteemed editor to allow for more column space to accommodate without whittling anything down. Out of respect for the soon-to-be dead.
Wiley, chef/owner, Meadowlark restaurant
My last meal would be prepared at home, and we would set up a big table outside. There would be lights strung overhead, and a good sound system set up. The attendees would be my wife, Kristine, along with every one of our closest friends from here and all over the country. Everybody would bring their dogs, and the music would be jazz vocalists and big band recordings, from Ella Fitzgerald to Louis Prima to Duke Ellington. Festivities would begin in the late afternoon, and we would start with a good champagne while we talk, greet each other, and get comfortable together. Then, we would be served a big platter of fritto misto, the Italian term for a mixed fry; we would eat delicious morsels like lacey, crispy, tempura-fried green beans and shiitake mushroom caps, fried green tomato slices, and batter-fried smelts. Of course, we’d have crunchy, golden, panko-crumbed soft shell crabs and oysters—these all will go great with the champagne.
Artichokes and eggplant grilled over the coals would follow, along with thick slices of summer tomato and some of my co-chef Liz’s homemade fresh mozzarella, gently torn into pieces by hand. Everything would be drizzled with a fresh tomato vinaigrette, just juiced homegrown tomatoes, salt, and some chopped lemon thyme, made with lots of really good olive oil. Warm flatbread would come off the grill to go with it all. We would drink one of my favorite wines, Bastianich Vespa Bianco from Friuli, Italy.
Then, we would grill some flat chickens from Dorothy Lane Market, with all the bones removed, save for the wings and drumsticks. We would season the chickens with coarse salt and cracked pepper and grill them slowly. The skin would get dark and crispy, we would let it rest, and then slather it with a parsley-caper sauce spiked with Calabrian chiles. We would eat the chicken with tiny, just-dug potatoes from Peach Mountain Organics in Spring Valley. With the potatoes, there would be a crock of butter flavored with garlic, black pepper, and fried sage and rosemary leaves. Also for the butter would be fresh Seedy McSeed bread from Blue Oven Bakery in Cincinnati. Alongside would be a big bowl of local arugula, not the wimpy store-bought kind, but the big, dark, peppery leaves that Peach Mountain grows in the fall. It would be lightly dressed with homemade lemon oil and showered with shredded parmesan. I would drink Domaine Tempier Bandol Rose with all of this, but I would have some good, elegant, light-bodied Pinot Noir available for the red wine drinkers.
Now, we would take a break and dance to the Pandora Earth, Wind and Fire station for an hour.
After we were revived by the dancing, we would break out the whiskey. I would sip on a little Templeton Rye, neat. We would eat pecan pie that my co-chef Dave would make for the occasion, with lots of unsweetened stiffly-whipped cream. Each person would stand and read a favorite chosen passage from a book or a poem. Then we would put the whiskey away and drink shots of espresso, because we aren’t done yet.
We would all crowd into the living room and watch the movie “The Big Chill,” which is about a group of friends getting together for the funeral of one of their friends. It is also one of my all-time favorite movies. Halfway through, we would miraculously get hungry! We would hit the pause button and make popcorn and cut watermelon and clean fresh-dug radishes and put good beer on ice, and bring them all into the living room and sprinkle hot sauce and salt on everything, eat and drink, and finish the movie.
Then, we would all go out and lie in the grass and look up at the beautiful night sky. Using each other’s laps as pillows, we would drift off to sleep, one by one. I would die in my sleep with a smile on my face after the magical evening we had all spent together.
Connie Post, food writer, Dayton Daily News
Of course, I’d prepare it myself. Probably a grilled cheese sandwich. I’d slather mayo on the outside slices of the bread, and inside, I’d use thin slices of pancetta and taleggio cheese and probably a little shredded Granny Smith apple—a twist on a recipe I found in “Own Your Kitchen: Recipes to Inspire & Empower” by Anne Burrell. I’d saute the sandwich in butter. Meanwhile, I’d slice an organic heirloom tomato to serve on the side and make a delicious cucumber salad recipe from Jacque Pepin’s “Heart and Soul” cookbook. It would also be great to have a spoonful each of fresh black-eyed peas and fried okra dredged in cornmeal from my Texas childhood. I’d drink champagne—either Dom or Piper Heidsieck. For a sweet ending, I think something simple: homemade pavlova with a small scoop of Young’s Dairy vanilla and a drizzle of local honey. And if I had room, a dark chocolate-covered almond or two.
Maria Walusis, chef and co-owner, Nibbles Restaurant
I am torn which way to go with this. Part of me would want it to be the best meal of my life and eat somewhere famous and stellar and be all fancy and chefy with bubbles to sip and cocktails. But the other part of me is nostalgic, and if I could repeat any meal from my life, it would have to be my Grammy’s holiday dinner. She served this at both Thanksgiving and Christmas, so we were lucky to get to eat it twice a year. She made, absolutely, the best turkey I have ever eaten and everything just tasted so amazing and homemade. My husband will even admit that it was much better than HIS Grandma’s! Her holiday meal would begin with her crudite tray: it was served on her retro lazy Susan server with the little curved removable dishes and always had green olives and those little sweet gherkin pickles. Also some carrot and celery sticks, but I would go back and forth between the olives and pickles. She would have the stovetop covered in pans full of potatoes and all the home-grown vegetables from the farm they lived on that we all helped can and freeze. It was a bit of summer left to enjoy all year round. Grammy’s turkey recipe was rub the bird all over with a stick of soft butter, then roast until the wings and legs fall off! The skin would be all crispy and browned, the meat so tender and juicy. My dad would usually carve it and put it on platters. I would sneak bites off the platter as he carved it and it smelled amazing. Once seated, we had a basic salad dressing with her vinaigrette, which she mixed in a glass with a fork. Just simple vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. At home, we always had Wish-Bone bottled Italian dressing, so this was a treat. Then, the turkey, mashed potatoes, and her amazing gravy. She made her gravy with the potato water, which added some great flavor. Somehow, she made it taste different than any other. Then, the lima beans, corn, and peas, which were grown on the farm. I think the gravy and vegetables were my favorite part of the meal (and usually what I would have seconds of). At their house, we always had whole milk to drink. At home it was always two percent, so we loved the milk at Grammy’s house. I didn’t know why at the time, but it always tasted better there, and they had those metal cups, which kept it super cold. Grammy made this insanely good wheat bread. They grew the wheat and had a small electric grinder, so they would grind the flour fresh and bake the bread. The rest of the year, she would make it into loaves of bread, and when I would sleepover, I would eat about six slices of toast, all crispy and buttery. I have never been able to duplicate this bread—even though I have her recipe. At the holidays, she would shape it into dinner rolls and we all loved them! The nooks and crannies the butter would melt into were so delicious! For dessert, simple cut-out sugar cookies with buttercream frosting and red hots, sprinkles, and the silver candy balls that would break your teeth. She always made black walnut refrigerator cookies and those little pecan tarts. Homemade crust, of course. I crave this meal and would love to eat it one last time. The only thing I would change is to switch the milk out for some bubbles, and perhaps some bourbon!
Dan Edwards, TV and radio personality, New Soft Rock 92.9 Morning Show
Like many who have commented before, I’m sure, my last meal would consist of favorites that remind me of loved ones in my life. The great thing about this request is calories, carbs, and consequences are irrelevant.
So, here it goes…
I’d start out with a nice stiff drink: Crown Royal, straight to relax and wake-up the taste buds.
I’d follow it up with sea salt homemade chips cut thick… pita chips with hummus, shrimp cocktail with a deviled egg, or two. Water with a slice of lemon to wash down my meal, which would include the Kentucky classic my Southern belle Cynthia makes for me—Hot Browns (no imitation…the original recipe from the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky) with deep cuts of turkey and ham on a bed of steaming hot mashed potatoes smothered with rich, thick gravy. Of course, green bean casserole and corn to add a little color, with cranberries on the side for sweetness. For dessert, I’d tickle my sweet tooth with pineapple or ribbon salad my mom would always make for me, along with orange cookies and a cup of coffee with a splash of Bailey’s. I’d also have a big piece of chocolate cake accompanied with a slice of coconut cream pie perfected by my grandma.
Now, it’s time to loosen the belt a few notches and kick-back and say so long diet, so long world…
Natalie and Jack Skilliter, owners, Corner Kitchen
Natalie’s Last Meal:
Snail toast from Elephant Tapas Bar, in Kingston, New York. This tapas plate is Spanish-style, served on a toasted baguette, topped with a sherried mushroom and snail cream sauce.
I would eat it after imbibing a Tanqueray Ten martini, up, with olives. The olives would serve as the appetizer.
I would be with my husband Jack, and my
Jack’s Last Meal:
Double cheeseburger with aged cheddar, thick-cut pepper bacon, coleslaw, and Dijon mustard, with tater tots on the side. I would want to drink a nice, large beer, whatever strikes my fancy in that moment. I would offer an open invitation to my last meal—anyone can come. I don’t want to guilt anyone into coming, but they are welcome to join if they would like. I wouldn’t cook the burger myself because I probably wouldn’t be doing much grocery shopping leading up to this event. Someone else would make it for me.
Paula Johnson, DCP’s Epicurean Empress
So, what’s mine? I’ll keep it simple. No, not really. A glass or two of Veuve Clicquot with Thomas Keller’s signature starter: ice cream cone-style salmon tartar coronets. Then, many dozens of Kumamoto oysters with a spicy mignonette. Then, a fine Bordeaux paired with an unforgettable dish I had at Guy Savoy in Las Vegas—a truffle-stuffed guinea hen, steamed in a pig’s bladder and deflated at the table, one of the most delicious aromas I’ve ever smelled. I would finish with a Grand Marnier souffle and a glass of Chateau d’Yquem.
That’s for one side of me.
The other side of me wants my Grandma’s stuffed peppers, so bad they were practically inedible (my Grandma was a terrible cook). I also want a deluxe platter of Long John Silver’s with about a thousand of those little greasy crunches in the bottom of the box. And finally, I want to settle in with PIP for a bubbling casserole pan of Skyline chili dip and tortilla chips in front of the TV to watch the Patriots play the Steelers. And when we cleaned up the last of the dip, we would gorge ourselves on a big bag of the Lucky Charms marshmallows (yes, this is an actual thing—you don’t need to eat the boring oat cereal anymore to get to the marshmallows). But of course, still drinking really good champagne to toast the Steeler victory. And the victory of a life well lived.