The Last Meal

 
 

On New Year's Eve 1995, Francois Mitterrand, the former French president, was dying of prostate cancer. On that night he supposedly had one last orgiastic feast, where he consumed an Ortolan Bunting. The tiny, endangered bird was captured, force fed in darkness and drowned in Armagnac. Ortolan eating began as an ancient Roman practice, and is now an illegal French delicacy. This is the story of a ravenous, cancer ridden president and a bird about the size of your thumb.

The Last Meal began when a friend of mine told me a vague story about a French leader, who, on his deathbed, ate a tiny, endangered bird. We had just had a fantastic meal of our own, at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant.  We feasted on their locally famous bowl of beef-noodle soup, chased it with a cup of jitter producing coffee with condensed milk, and a toped it with a cannoli from the Italian bakery next door. When I got home that night, I Google searched “French leader eats bird” and what I found set me off on a research binge.

Francois Mitterrand, a man who self-identified as a humanist, a committed socialist, and an erudite, well read president of the fifth republic, had as a last act, definitively made us aware of his own superior position on the food chain. He and thirty guests were served Ortolan, an illegal to eat, highly endangered species. This was a highly considered act.  Mitterrand was actively involved in the planning and execution of every dish served, every bottle of wine that was uncorked, despite his weakened condition. He was dying of prostate cancer, and was ready to die, in his own way.

Initially, I worked the story into a lecture-performance that I was writing at the time about fascist aesthetics.  The need to pass so grandly from this life that you take a more fragile one along with you has a fascistic ring to it. Mitterrand’s own brushes with fascism, and his ideological ambiguity were woven into the story. This was eating when it was no longer an act of sustenance, but instead a perverted attempt at immortality. 

The Last Meal is a lecture-performance and a video.  Performing the piece live, I am able to skewer the dynamics of an authoritative academic lecture.  Shooting the video afforded me the opportunity to exploit the conventions of TV documentaries.  In the video, I position myself within this narrative as an expert, and then unravel my authority through the hand made approach. This is a PBS documentary on a micro-budget, this is the “didactics of the kitchen”.

The problem with the soup is that it is too good. Once digested, it is not long before I feel a pang for more of it.  If I am in a familiar city, then it is likely that I have staked out the best family-run Vietnamese restaurant. As a result, I can satiate my desire at will, along with so many other desires of the senses.  If I knew my end was near, I know that I would imbibe one final time, at my favorite place. And maybe for that final time, if I had the chance, the steaming hot soup would be accompanied by a shameful side dish of Ortolan.