“If you can stick a man with a shiv, you can peal a potato. You already have the rudimentary knife skills” he told his audience of aspiring incarcerated chefs. Facing blank stares, Cadbury persisted, “What I’m saying is if you can cut into someone, you can cut a vegetable.”
Suddenly, a fight broke out. Cadbury ducked, but his reactions were not as good as when he had been a prisoner. A plastic banana hit him in the forehead. He felt a trickle of blood running down his nose. Since Cadbury was a chef he tasted it to make sure. Near the front of the room where Cadbury was teaching, a gnome-like older man was beating a larger inmate with a medium-rare steak. Cadbury could only think, “How’d he get that steak. I smuggled it in for the women’s unit.”
He looked out into the audience. It had been about ten years since Myles Cadbury had been released from prison. Many would have considered Myles to be the unluckiest man in the world. Myles first arrived in jail for driving on a suspended license. Myles had been sentenced to 60 days, the largest sentence of its kind on record. While doing his 60 days, Myles was attacked with a shiv by another inmate. Myles disarmed him, and then nearly beat him to death. For this crime, Myles was sentenced to six years in prison. Myles kept the shiv as a memento, and used it as his favorite kitchen peeler.
The inmates in the prison chef training program were generally not allowed to practice on real food. What provisions existed were very limited. The convict kitchen depended mostly on donations. It was part of Myles’ dream to provide cheap and desirable food in an institutional setting. A prison cafeteria should be no worse than that of a school, but these were progressive ideas that Myles had to conceal or at least soft-pedal. Myles fondly remembered Gus, his rappie (cellmate) when Myles was doing his own time saying, “I hope this is mayonnaise you’ve spread on my bologna sandwich, or I’ll have to kill you.”
It had not been mayonnaise; it would have been easier to get crack cocaine in prison, but an improvised condiment Myles had been able to concoct on his own from a bit of hair conditioner here and a lump of sugar there. Myles true inspiration came from “beeno,” the prison home-brewed alcohol.
Drugs and alcohol are, of course, prohibited in prison, and in tandem with the prohibition is the intense desire to drink and to get high. Beeno is prison hooch. Beeno is a drink without a recipe, but a theory. It could be assembled with any ingredient including fruit cup juice which provides the backbone for the fermentation process. Not as subtle as a whiff of almond, chocolate or cherry in a Napa Valley Cabernet, beeno aficionados can detect at times the accents of shoe laces, letters to forgotten lovers, and Mr. Clean solution. When an inmate had imbibed some Chateau Floor Cleaner and had the look in his eye of a sparkling floor, the other prisoners would remark, “Look, Joe has Mr. Clean on the bean.”
The other prisoners went to Cadbury for Beeno. As his reputation grew, Cadbury was inspired to produce food dishes on his own. He made bologna casserole when another prisoner provided him with a stolen glass Pyrex dish from the infirmary. Unlike the items from the local supermarket, there was no list of ingredients printed on Myles’ concoctions. Ineluctably, Myles became obsessed with food: The smudges he saw on the prison walls got him thinking of brown sauce. The bars were supports for cake layers. It was a better obsession than that of many of his fellow inmates whose obsessions would lead to years of counseling and further incarceration.
But Myles big break happened only by chance. Myles was discovered by the famous chef known for the food show, “Just Ask Jared.” Jared had decided to give back by teaching disadvantaged high school students how to cook. Occasionally, his students would get into trouble.
Jared first met Myles Cadbury in jail where Jared was trying to arrange for a wayward youth to be transferred from adult to juvenile custody. Jared imbibed the surroundings, thinking “Everything around here smells like stale human excretions, except for what’s coming from that cell over there which, I swear, smells like Crème Brulee.”
Sure enough, Myles was making a special desert for a dying prisoner. The brulee process he was miraculously carrying out with a single match. One prisoner had obtained the match which was relatively difficult to obtain in a jail, but surrendered it to Myles who had awed him with his technical facility and his kindness.
“I’m Jared Smith,” the recognized chef said.
“Yes, I know” Myles said. “I’ve seen you on television, but you can’t have any of this food. It’s for inmates only. But don’t leave. I’m getting out in three days, and I know how you can help me and the others here,” Myles said.
When they met on the outside, Myles asked for a check to privately fund an inmate cooking school to be run by him, an untrained convict with a penchant to cook. Jared’s spontaneous, confident style of deal making served him well with Myles. Year after year, the inmate cooking school would produce a handful of extraordinarily talented and dedicated chefs.
As the years passed, pressure built on Myles to share his food. His graduates published unauthorized cook books containing his recipes, but Myles would not relent and publish his own. It was easier to get into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory then to pry into Myles’ pantry. Beautiful women would offer him their love and hedge fund managers would offer him their money to sample his food, but he steadfastly refused. “All of the food fashioned is for the offenders,” he insisted. “It is to assuage their suffering, provide them sustenance, promote their well-being and offer them a future.” But, over time, Myles became inescapably discontented even with his cooking class. His life and career had reached a plateau. One challenge remained for him, the last meal of those condemned to die.
The prisoners facing death were segregated in the proverbial death row. As a humane gesture in a barbaric process, the last meal was a well-established practice across the prison system. The prison cafeteria couldn’t possibly prepare anything that would be suitable in quality for a last meal, so the last meal was a carry out order. Myles argument to the prison authorities was that they knew how much carry out cost, and even a last meal could be done on a budget. They agreed, and gave him carte blanche for his culinary creations.
At first, Myles faced some obstacles from the prison population itself. The more stoic death row inmates refused requesting a last meal and asked only for water. Others, less morally exacting wanted only a steak or a pizza. On public radio, Myles had heard a doctor speak of the period of terminal illness as one of growth and development, and Myles thought of the last meal, too, as a time to experiment. In one conversation, Myles tried to persuade an inmate who had gotten a raw deal in his representation, trial, and sentencing to try raw food.
“Have you ever had meat tartar,” he said to which he got the unexpected reply, “No way! Even Jeffrey Dahmer, the cannibal, cooked his victims flesh in a frying pan with some Crisco.”
It was a difficult slog, but Myles had in mind giving them something more than a last meal; his cuisine offered them a degree of immortality. Anyone who would honor him with the request for a last meal he would enter into a permanent menu with their picture, biography, and critique of the meal, including number of stars. With the promise of immortality, Myles had virtually a 100% sign up rate. Although Myles felt a deep satisfaction from cooking, he had wanted to serve the meal himself, too. Service was essential to any dining experience, and, practically speaking, if the inmates had had any last questions about their last meal before they were executed he could answer them. He would also discourage over-salting of his food, which he deplored. His curiosity as to whether his elaborate stage-like instructions were being followed overtook him.
The next time a last meal was being delivered he disguised himself in a sheriff’s uniform, and followed the regular crew that delivered his tenderly and artfully prepared last meals. Rather than heading to death row, the food cart and the requisite guards headed directly to the warden’s office. From outside of the warden’s door, Myles could hear the clatter of plates and glasses, the noise of toasts being made. Myles burst into the office.
“What the hell are you doing with my food?”
“We’re eating it, of course,” said the Warden. “It’s quite delicious.”
“That food you’re eating is for men sentenced to die. Don’t you have any decency?
“Decency, one Sheriff belched. Don’t talk to me about decency! Look at what the people you’re cooking for have done: rape and murder, murder and rape in no order, molestation of children, bestiality with animals, Hitler worship, Satin worship, elder cruelty. They don’t deserve haute cuisine. They deserve to have their last meal out of a garbage can.”
“You’re forgetting that after all they’ve done they’re still human beings, unlike some of the people in this room who have entirely lost their humanity and compassion,” Myles bellowed as he stormed out of the room containing his intense need to hurt someone.
His ideals crushed, Myles was left only with his base instincts, his survival skills. “OK, I’ll just give them what they want,” he relented. “I’ll open a restaurant.”
Myles invested all the money he had saved plus a huge investment from his old financial backer, Jared. The warden was easily won over to the idea. “You don’t even have to apologize,” he said. “You’re a good man Myles Cadbury. I’ll pull some strings. We’ll have the restaurant on the roof of the prison with its panoramic views. We’ll get a liquor license, too. After all, the prisoners aren’t going to be tippling, we will,” and he slapped Myles across the back, adding, “Do you smoke cigars?”
In that moment, Myles reflected upon the long years of manufacturing Beeno, of how far he had come, how far he was going, and how much he wanted a drink after more than ten years of sobriety. Everyone knew that the Warden kept imported vodka in a bottle of keyboard cleaner on his desk.
“Give me a snort of that spray cleaner, would you warden. I feel like Elvis in Jailhouse Rock already.”
The restaurant called appropriately enough, “Your Last Meal” was a meteoric success. The food critic for the city paper wrote a rave review entitled, “Your Last Meal is to Die For.” The element of danger added to its cache. There was no elevator to the restaurant’s rooftop seating. Patrons had to clamber up a metal fire escape staircase to the top. The scanning lights from the prison watchtower would illuminate the steps, but every so often a drunken guest would fall off the ladder to land on a gilded trampoline provided for customer safety.
Myles felt in his blackened heart that he was finally living the life that he was predestined to live; that of physical dissipation and moral bankruptcy. His personal lapses began to creep into his much vaunted menu. He began to use artificial ingredients. The dishes he offered weren’t actually the ones ordered by death row in- mates, but from his own depraved fantasies; naked women were used as serving trays, then sent back into the kitchen, not properly rinsed, and then sent out again. He even offered a Groupon.
But nostalgia for his original mission still haunted him, “Warden,” he pleaded, “just give me one last chance to cook one last, last meal; I’m begging you.”
“Alright, Myles,” he said. “You could cook for Joe Hammertoe, if he lets you.” Joe had been convicted for killing his last wife who bore him triplets. At trial, the jury found him guilty. Joe was currently on hunger strike resulting in a coma. Myles accepted the challenge. First, he prepared his signature dishes pureed a la feeding tube, and Joe slowly regained consciousness.
“Now that I’m going to live I want to be consulted about the menu. Spare no expense. I want three 64-oz. sodas, seven chicken fried steaks, two bacon cheeseburgers, a deep dish sausage and pepperoni pizza, five fried snickers bars for desert, and no goddamn breadsticks,” Joe said.
“I won’t do it,” Myles responded. “You would suffer a cruel and unusual bout of indigestion with a menu like that. There’s Sartre’s nausea of existence, but indigestion before death that’s too much even for you, Joe.”
Reluctantly, Joe both accepted his fate and Myles as his chef. The final menu consisted of escargot, chicken-fried steak with peppercorn sauce, pulled ostrich with a mole sauce, oysters Rockefeller and lady fingers with real rum. On the day of the execution, Myles himself wheeled in the fabulous meal and delivered it to Joe himself.
“I don’t want any of this shit,” Joe exploded. Myles was flabbergasted. No one in the history of his cooking had ever rejected a plate of his.
“Listen, I don’t want a last meal, I’m getting out,” Joe continued. Myles surmised that this was just a final delusion of a sick mind, and responded, “You’re as likely to go free as the free range chicken I prepared yesterday.”
“Let me be direct, Cookie,” Joe said. “The death penalty has been abolished. The Governor commuted my sentence. I may have strangled my first two wives in the bathtub, but I’ve always been a registered democrat, and it is payback time. I wouldn’t eat this food if you paid me to,” Joe screamed and knocked all of the food off of the cart before him. “It’s all a mistake. Who has time, anyway, to eat escargot when you’re about to be executed.”
“Myles, he’s right,” said Officer Fry standing alongside on watch. “There is no more death penalty in this state. Joe will go free as soon as he pays the mandatory fines, fees and costs on a 1983 speeding ticket.”
Myles initial feeling was joy. The state had ceased committing its most barbaric and senseless act. Rather than concern for miscarriage of justice, the execution of an innocent man or woman, Myles believed that the death penalty was abolished because it cost too much money, which included Myles’ bills for last meals. At the same time, Myles felt as defeated as a fallen soufflé. With the death penalty over business plummeted at his prison rooftop restaurant. He knew that as much as good food the patrons craved an authentic experience. The experience would not be the same for them knowing that the meal they were eating was not the same one served to someone who was about to be executed. Overall, Myles felt intensely guilty over his ambivalence. How can I put myself and my culinary ambitions literally above the lives of others?” he relentlessly questioned himself.
As he predicted, business suffered. One evening after closing, Myles took his beloved chef’s hat and apron hand-decorated with gang graffiti by the many friends and acquaintances he had met in prison over the years and threw them in the dumpster. He then opened the convection oven. “What temperature should I set it if I’m going to stick my head in?” he thought bitterly. For a moment, Myles thought about putting his head in the microwave, but he never liked using shortcuts in his professional life, and did not want to end his life in a way other than how he had lived it, so he stuck his head in his favorite old oven, and turned the gas on full.
Just then, the well-regarded, but misguided criminal defense attorney known as “the Cooties” wandered in the kitchen.
“Isn’t that the famous chef, Myles Hershey, what could he possibly be preparing with his head in the oven for so long?” he said.
Myles heard what the Cooties said, and began to laugh, and when he laughed he began to cough, and then in a knee-jerk involuntary way fell backward to avoid choking to death.
“Hey, you chimp, you just saved my life,” Myles said hoarsely to which the Cooties said, “You probably won’t be prosecuted for what you’ve done, and you wouldn’t happen to be able to key me out of here?” “My pleasure, Cooties,” Myles replied.
After his restaurant closed, Myles had to abandon dissipation because he couldn’t afford it. He tried to work in an upscale restaurant, but no one would hire him because, after all, he was a convicted felon. He was even fired from his last cooking job at a fast food restaurant for refusing to put mayonnaise on a hamburger as the directions required. While hungry and riddled with self-doubt he received a call out of nowhere from Jared as mysteriously as when he had first entered Myles’ life. “Look, I know, you’ve been through some hard times,” Jared said.
Myles interrupted, “What took you so long to call?”
“To tell you the truth, that prison shit is kind of depressing, and I don’t want to be reminded of it. But wait, don’t hang up on me. I have an opportunity for you, you can’t pass up. You’re going to be on the Surprise Chef Show.”
“Say no more, I’ll do it,” Myles said pouncing on the opportunity.
The show’s current theme was triumph against adversity. The first chef, Elena Garvis, had come back to cooking after being burned over 75% of her body while igniting a dish of flambéed cheese. Myles other challenger was Mandy Reyes. Reyes suffered from extraordinarily profound food allergies. He couldn’t eat gluten, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, and many other things. His cuisine had an ethereal quality, but was rather bland.
It so happened that the show had run out of its food budget, and all that remained to be prepared was the stuff in the kitchen garbage can, the refuse in the rear dumpster, and whatever lurked at the back of the refrigerator and freezer. When this mélange was dropped on Myles’ station at the beginning of the show it brought joy to his heart. It was just with stinking ingredients like these (banana peels, moldy fruit, gristle) that he had built his career while incarcerated. “Any fool could make something tasty and appealing with high quality ingredients. It takes talent and imagination like I have to make something appetizing from the trash,” he thought proudly.
As he looked around, one of the ingredients he desired was missing. Like Pablo Picasso remarked, all great artists steal, and Myles was no exception. Three oddly shaped pieces of discarded toast lying unattended on Tina’s station. When the judges were not looking he ran over to Tina’s station and stole the toast.
Myles cooked furiously. He decided to make a garbage omelet. In this case, it was made with real garbage. Why had a master self-taught chef like Myles chosen a dish so simple when he could have expertly steamed the half-used halibut “papillote” style with judiciously cut rotten vegetable? The answer was the toast. His Pious Toast was the one dish he had always imagined, but had never executed. He found the recipe not in a cookbook, but in an old book of prayers and incantations for the sick and broken-hearted.
As the book instructed, Myles passed his hand over the lightly-toasted bread without touching it while snapping his fingers, and intoning a sacred prayer. Suddenly, a light bean appeared through the studio window, and then miraculously an image of Jesus was seared into the toast.
Needless, to say, Myles won. One of the judges echoed the others who were equally awed: “The other contestants only gave us food: Reyes, you prepared an inventive rotting vegetable primavera, and Garvis you made an acceptable onion soup with something on top which wasn’t quite cheese, but you, Myles, have truly redeemed yourself and us by performing a miracle in the name of the Lord.” In fact, it was the first time in the history of the food network that the entire audience fell to its knees.
“Thank you,” said Myles. “I know I have been blessed in so many ways. Now, if you don’t mind, could you give me the check and the bottle of sparkling wine back there?”
Myles was handed the check and the champagne. Balloons fell on him from above his head, a band played, and the audience sang out “You’re the Surprise Chef! You’re the Surprise Chef! What a surprise it is!”
Myles barely listened. He smiled as he took out the prize shiv he always concealed on his person just in case. He opened the champagne bottle with one strike of his best friend forever. As the champagne ran down his chest, he thought, “Being a chef is hard, physical work, it’s time for me to start living my dream, to become a writer.” With a serene look in his eyes, Myles imagined his first collection of stories called “Fiction al Dente,” and a follow up book of literary criticism which would explore literary doneness.
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