It is possible that I’ve considered my last meal far too frequently for someone who is in semi-okay health and pristine legal standing. I’m satisfied to know The Last Meal is a concept other people also love to fixate on, because that affirms my long-held suspicion that most “important” things in life (taxes, homeowner’s insurance, how the stock market is doing right now) are not as necessary or interesting or important as food. All of those other things are just things we made up to give us something to do and worry about while we’re alive. Food happens on its own, and needs us much less than we need it. Without food, we couldn’t even be alive. Food is the most important thing in the world.
Some say New York City is the most important food city in the world. I’ve lived here very little time (almost two years), but I have to say that I consider any city in which I’m currently living to be the most important, because if I didn’t consider it the most important, I would always be dreaming about living somewhere else, instead of actually living where I live. You know, like, living. Going to markets and local movie theaters and readings at independent book stores and all of those campy things that bring oxygen to life, at least the flavor of oxygen that I like to breathe. But objectively, New York will always have the edge when it comes to food. And not even just the exorbitant, beautiful, mostly impossible $325 per person dinners. The fanciest, most expensive dining experiences stand out to the rest of the country, yes, because they’re great (and they really are extraordinary — tell me you’d refuse to spend $325 on the the best concert of your life), but they mostly stand out because they’re usually in the tallest buildings.
Lucky Peach editor and brilliant hipster Robin to David Chang’s Batman, Peter Meehan writes that while “something must be said for the establishments with the starched linens and sommeliers,” he would “stake the entire reputation of New York’s eating scene on the shoulders of everyday places.” Pete Wells, love him or hate him, articulates a related sentiment with such precision, by both illustrating the allure and defending the identity of the New York Breakfast Sandwich. A culture’s food reflects a culture’s people. Eleven Madison Park is around the corner from a McDonald’s. I see homeless men sitting next to UES heiresses on the 6 all the time. It’s the New York you don’t see on postcards, but the New York you’ll get to know if you deserve to be introduced.
When people ask where I’m from, I say Florida. (I was born in Rhode Island, a state where I lived for practically 5 minutes and means mostly nothing to me, except that I was born there because my dad was at Johnson & Wales at the time, training to be a chef/one of my greatest influences — so maybe Rhode Island actually means everything to me, I just never gave it that credit.) Florida, on the other hand, holds more conscious significance. I spent half my childhood in Hallendale, just north of Miami and South Beach and all the adult fun I couldn’t experience because I was eleven and in a Catholic elementary school. My family and I moved across the state to Sarasota when I was thirteen, when my dad was opening his first restaurant. Sarasota and Miami are very different as far as average age of beach goers and average bitchiness of girls in your middle school who made you feel weird for maintaining a journal and your convictions among many other things. But Sarasota and Miami had and still have Publix in common, and that was all that mattered.
Publix: a church for every religion, an oasis amidst a tropical paradise, a grocery store that truly, genuinely made shopping a pleasure. Going to Publix is a celebration of an errand, where the store brands are better than the brand brands, the bakery’s chocolate chip cookies are soft and packed full of chips and hope. Their rotisserie chickens are the best part of your Saturday afternoons, and going to Publix means you can smell them cooking from the parking lot. They’re clean and calming, draped in tones of pale green and taupe and peachy pink. The cashiers are usually either middle aged women or obnoxious teenagers high on some combination of drugs and superiority. But none of that is relevant. Going to Publix is living.
If considered honestly, people probably don’t have to think very hard about their last meal. It’s the same way people wonder what they’d do with the winnings of a $4 million lottery. You don’t have to wonder. You’d pay off your morgatge, your student loans, your credit card debt, your car payments. You’d buy a house or take a nice vacation finally, you’d put some away or invest in the stock market because that’s an apparently important thing to do. (Sorry to rag on you, stock market— I’m sure you matter in ways I am too disinterested to understand.) But I like to think that when given the complete freedom to choose as irresponsibly as possible, people still generally make logical, practical, familiar decisions.
Your last meal wouldn’t be a massive, expensive porterhouse at a steakhouse you’ve never been to. It wouldn’t be one of those ridiculous burgers with gold leaf flakes, because those are fucking stupid. It wouldn’t even be dinner at Eleven Madison Park, probably. It might be at the McDonald’s around the corner, though, because you used to go to McDonalds every Tuesday and Thursday for 50 cent apple pies between school and music lessons at the Hallendale Community Center, taught by women who were all confusingly Russian, and that ritual was your favorite part of the week. Your last meal would be something only your mom knows how to make, or something you’d eat with your mom, or something you learned how to make because of your mom, because right behind food, moms are the second most important things in the world. Your last meal would be something that tastes better because you already know, before you even take the first bite, that it’s already going to taste great.
My last meal on Earth would be a sub from Publix’s deli, otherwise known as a PubSub. One word to incite one emotion: joy. Publix’s deli is wonderful in a way that isn’t better than New York delis, because you can’t really compare the two. You’re not thinking about New York when you’re in a Publix, and New York isn’t missing you, even if it needs you to survive.
A PubSub is an ordinary sandwich. It’s a combination of sliced meats (in my case, an “Ultimate” — ham, turkey, and roast beef), it’s Swiss cheese, but it could be any cheese. It’s cucumbers and tomatoes and shredded lettuce and green peppers and extra olives and a little bit of onion, salt and pepper and sub dressing. The bread is baked on-site. It’s great, but not like, artisan. It’s wrapped up in wax paper, slipped into a paper sleeve, and sealed with an adhesive ticket. A PubSub is huge, easily two lunches, and it’s $6.59.
A PubSub is perfect because it comes at the tail end of a grocery trip with the rest of your family — six people who also love food — a grocery trip that will be fun as far as grocery trips are concerned, because these people are your favorite people, and all of them are together. A PubSub is perfect because the other half is soggy in some parts when you eat it the next day, in the late morning while your mom drinks coffee with her glasses on the bridge of her nose, and your little brother is making something over there with eggs and leftovers. It’s perfect because you’re present with it, aware and alive, enjoying the context, thinking about whatever you have going on later that day — probably a lot of nothing, the little wispy nothings, the combined hours of just hanging out on the patio that feel uniquely Florida, that make up living.
A PubSub is perfect not because it’s famous or even consistent every time. It’s personal and personalized. It will be your last meal, but it isn’t now. You’ve had many before this, and you’ll have many more after this, because you’ll be back again, even if you don’t know when, but that sandwich will be there, like the sun and the palm trees, like memory, like home.