(This review was first published in The Herald on September 21, 2019.)
By his own admission, speculating about what one would eat as one’s last meal is nothing new. But that doesn’t stop the infamously trenchant author from storming in and owning the idea – albeit ahead of his own time.
“Last suppers are the culinary idea to end all ideas,” he writes. “But they are wasted on the very people who are the most eligible for them. This seemed to me extremely unfair. I was excluded from enjoying this blissful meal by the piffling detail of not actually being that close to death.”
So at age 52 he sets out to stage his own, reasoning that he has every right to do so. After 20 years as the Observer’s restaurant critic, he has accrued enough food memories to construct the “death row dinner” to end them all.
Grabbing the reader by the thrapple by a strangely urgent narrative that somehow invokes the commanding voice of the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet, the pace is such that any protestations are kept at bay. “After a while you get used to people wishing you dead,” he begins. And who could argue with that?
As we cross the globe in search of his favoured butter, bread, oysters, snails, alcohol, pig, salad, chips, Mont Blanc dessert and sparking water, Rayner proves a gifted raconteur. Anecdotes trip off the tongue as easily melted lard, many unrelated to his current career: he revisits early star journalistic commissions, childhood and his own near-death experiences.
Part memoir, part confessional, part exercise in shameless name-dropping (Rayner seizes the opportunity to name-check his best contacts, a habit that will have other food writers gnashing their teeth in career-death desperation) My Last Supper is a tour de force of spectacular storytelling.
That the author has a voracious appetite is not - never has been - in question. Neither is his gift for provocation. Among his ascerbic apercus about fashionable food intolerances and hipster artisan producers he clearly enjoys the shock value of identifying as a Jew who likes pig. In a pork scratchings factory, he observes the slipperiness of the floor where the “boiled-down pig” has become ingrained. With colleagues he enjoys a “huge carnival of feet and ears and noses and spleens”, noting that “mouth-coating oiliness makes me happy”.
The slightly nauseating obsession with food and eating relived here is alleviated by humour and pathos. There are echoes of Woody Allen as Rayner recalls being invited by a group of Lubavitch Jews to witness the coming of the Messiah while in New York covering the Brooklyn riots. The Messiah in question turns out to be a 91-year-old multiple stroke victim who is now mute, deaf and going blind. His bodyguards simply shrug and say, ‘Meh, maybe next year’ as they wheel him off.
Rayner puts his lifelong battle with weight down to being a “Shtetl Jew, with a metabolism built for winter on the Russian steppes when the Cossacks are coming”. His waistline passed the 40-inch mark in his early teens. He had weak ankles and fallen arches; a genetic tendency to varicose veins, combined with that weight, meant that his “calves bloomed with peaks both green and purples” before he was 15.
He offers plenty of socio-psychological observations, wondering for example why a death-row inmate would choose Diet Coke as his last drink, and what the difference is between comfort eating and overeating. I’m guessing this is a trait inherited from his late mother Claire, the celebrated agony aunt, whom he references with notable regularity and who as a staff writer with The Herald I had the privilege of interviewing at the Rayner family home in North London to discuss her distressing 2003 autobiography.
After all the bluster, the final meal itself at first seems underwhelming. The envisaged suckling pig morphs into bacon sarnies; nobody blinks an eye at the painstakingly sourced French sparkling water for which he paid £70 for two cases, including discount.
But it’s a convivial event that celebrates love, friendship, music and the making of new memories. And therein lies the crux of the issue. What otherwise is the point of eating at all? The killer coda is that Rayner’s best friend cannot attend because he is dying – and has his real-time last meal without him.
It’s a moving echo of Rayner’s dying father Des, who could not eat the last meal his son had so lovingly sourced for him.
So thanks for the ride, Mr Rayner. And thanks for ruining this brilliant idea for everyone else.
· My Last Supper: One Meal, One Lifetime in the Making, by Jay Rayner, is published by Faber & Faber at £16.99.
· The My Last Supper Tour visits Glasgow and Edinburgh in November. Visit Faneproductions.com/jay