food / travel

One Last Meal Before The End Of The World

To Die For: Alain Ducasse's langoustine and caviar.
To Die For: Alain Ducasse's langoustine and caviar.
Shi Jianzi

The end of the world is slated for this Friday, December 21, and Chinese restaurants are fully booked.

They are promising a wonderful atmosphere and are dubbing the special evening the “Last Supper."

We can already imagine the hordes of young people who will spend the evening in a bar – downing alcohol to help them face the end of days – or perhaps at a special doomsday concert.

The concept of the last meal, in general, fascinates. So much so that there is an American website specialized in this very subject and dedicated to tracking down what death row prisoners had for their last supper.

A survey of 247 death row inmates by Cornell University found that 20% of them chose not to eat at all. It’s understandable that when you don’t have much time left, you might prefer to spend it thinking about certain things, and not eating. The rest of the prisoners described menus that can be characterized as high calorie, high in protein and highly greasy. Over 80% of them wanted meat, two out of three wanted fried food. Almost none of them chose vegetables, spaghetti or pizza.

While death row menus are quite depressing, Melanie Dunea, an award-winning photographer, had the ingenious idea of asking 50 of the world’s most famous chefs the same question, as well as who they would like for company, and who they would like to cook their last meal.

She compiled these chefs’ last meals into a cookbook called My Last Supper: Fifty Great Chefs and Their Final Meals.

When it comes down to issues such as food, probably no one can offer a broader insight than world-famous chefs. White truffle, the finest beluga caviar, and $300-a-pound otoro tuna are some of the chosen ingredients.

The truth is that what these chefs would like their last meal to be has nothing to do with death or life, but rather with desire. After all, they are the people on top of the pyramid when it comes to utmost culinary pleasure. They should know what makes up a perfect meal.

Anthony Bourdain, a famous New York chef as well as a best-seller author, was invited to write the preface for the book. Bourdain is convinced that if you had to predict someone’s last meal, it would most likely be their favorite childhood meal – a simple daily dish, to be eaten with one’s family.

If that’s true, then this book will definitely not fly off the shelves!

But actually, the book shows that more than half of the chefs would go for the finest sashimi, Japanese raw fish, and Black Sea caviar. Most of the time, they would like another world-class chef to prepare their last meal. French chef Alain Ducasse, is the most popular, since he is the only person in the world who owns three 3-star Michelin restaurants.

“Only good food and love”

The ideal last meal of Tom Aikens, the Michelin-starred British chef and one of the cooks on Iron Chef UK, includes “roasted foie gras seasoned with coarse sea salt and cracked black pepper and eaten out of the pan with toasted sourdough.” Next dish would be “seared Scottish scallops, sautéed in a hot pan in the best olive oil money can buy, and served with sauce vierge.” Well, that's for starters. For the main course, he’ll have “either fresh Dover sole cooked in brown butter with capers, lemon juice, and parsley; or a beautifully aged piece of marbled, four-week-old beef, grilled or roasted in the oven till pink.” He’d also like to have “a simple green salad on the side, with French dressing, and some thick-cut chips that have been cooked in duck fat and sprinkled with Malvern sea salt or fleur de sel.”

The menu of Anita Lo, a second-generation Chinese from New York and one of the very few female chefs in the book, came up with goodies such as Peconic Bay scallops, sea bass, otoro tuna, beluga caviar so fresh that “one feels it bouncing in the mouth”, blue crab cakes and cuttlefish sub sauté with garlic and lemon juice, and Hudson River foie gras.

José Andrés, the Spaniard, bumbled on about some memorable tortilla and potato omelet he once had in his village as a child, but, soon enough, turns to Goose barnacles, an expensive seafood delicacy.

As for French chef Daniel Boulud, his ideal meal is in the Hall of Mirrors, in the French palace of Versailles, with Alain Ducasse as the chef and foie gras terrine, lobster, game bird such as partridge or pheasant, and of course, a cheese course.

Naturally, the ones who can still imagine themselves savoring a good meal and good drink at the end of the world are the ones who don’t believe in such a thing. After all, it’s those trivial daily little wonders that give people the courage to face doomsday. Just like the Chinese proverb, “Only good food and love are to be lived up to.”

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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