A few weeks ago my mother called to ask if I had a family heirloom, a book chronicling the Titanic’s demise after the unsinkable ship blundered into an iceberg. Yes, I had the book, old and tattered. The spine had split, allowing the release of slender sheaves of paper. Both covers were separate from the binding. To prevent further deterioration, I’d stored its remains in a large plastic freezer bag. Published by the Minter Company in 1912, its title is Sinking of the Titanic – Thrilling Stories Told by Survivors. It represents the first time a book on disaster was rushed into print. (These days entire nonfiction careers are built around disasters—the worse, the better!)
The book was written by Jay Henry Mowbray, Ph.D., LL.D., further identified as “The Well Known Author.” I ignored my pang of envy for such bold credentials and asked Mom why she’d kept the book so long. Her voice took on a knowing glee, a trait of hers when she realizes she’s in possession of information I don’t have. “Because,” she said with a dramatic pause that built palpable tension through the phone, “your great-grandparents almost went on the Titanic!” I nodded, always an idiotic decision on the telephone, and promised to bring her the book. Mom was a little shaky on the precise obstacle to my great-grandparents’ passage—something to do with misplaced luggage at the last minute. Every family has legends of lost fortune and glory, particularly in the South where we keep our history close, and our enemies in sight.
I put forth a good two days of research into my mother’s claim. No Offutt appeared on the passenger list. Nor did Spanninger, my grandmother’s family name. The sinking of the unsinkable was an enormous cultural event in 1912, and it became quite fashionable for people to claim that last-minute circumstances prevented them from boarding the ship. I believe this lore entered my family, resulting in the preservation of the book.
Titanic scholarship is quite voluminous with more than a hundred books on the subject. At a recent London auction an original ship’s menu sold for $122,000. In 2012 a Houston restaurant replicated the last meal served on the Titanic. For twelve-thousand dollars, diners could savor the pleasure of eating the supper served to First Class passengers before the sea doused the remaining provisions with too much salt. If this seems like a lot of money, please bear in mind that it echoes the value of human life onboard the ship. Two-thirds of the First Class passengers survived while only one-fourth of the Third Class lived.
My research led me to the contemporary phenomenon of our society’s morbid fascination with last meals. Socrates drank hemlock with a little bread to wash the poison down. The most famous last supper is Jesus’ traditional Passover seder fare: unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and lamb. James Dean’s last meal was milk and pie, Hemingway ate steak, Marilyn Monroe ordered Mexican takeout, and Elvis Presley snacked on ice cream and cookies.
No one ever knows his or her last meal in advance except prisoners condemned to execution. Most of them don’t eat due to anxiety over knowing the precise second they will die (except in Oklahoma where formal execution can take several minutes). Still, human culture maintains its fascination with final fare. Perhaps we seek a link between food and the afterlife. Ancient Egyptians and some Native American Plains tribes buried their dead with food—just in case! (This is tantamount to believers in reincarnation being buried with an extra pair of socks and underwear.)
My intent is to examine the last meals of legendary losers in American history—George Armstrong Custer, Stanford White, and Leeroy Jenkins. Custer’s atrocious battlefield tactics led to a national monument that commemorates a massive defeat of American soldiers. Counties in six states are named for the hapless commander. In 1879 a bronze statue was unveiled at West Point. Custer’s widow disapproved of the facial likeness and the statue was transported to the studio of New York designer Stanford White, who was hired to remove the head and improve Custer’s looks. Before White could finish the job, a jealous husband killed him at Madison Square Garden. The ensuing melee of trial and tabloid journalism contributed to the misplacement of Custer’s statue, which was never recovered. West Point eventually erected an obelisk instead.
It could be said that Custer lost his head twice—once when he underestimated the Sioux warriors, and the second time when his statue disappeared. Strangely enough, White’s own head was ruined beyond recognition by three bullets in the face. White’s last meal was at the extremely chic Café Martin, where the haute monde and nouveau riche ate fancy French food off tiny plates at small tables. His last meal was a glass of port. His murderer, Harry Thaw, was a very wealthy man who quarreled with the prison regulation of issuing convicts merely a spoon for eating. Thaw won this battle with the authorities. He began eating meals prepared by Delmonico’s, the best New York restaurant at the time. In his cell at the Tombs, Thaw drank champagne and ate off china at a linen-covered table. After three trials, two stints in prison, several mental facilities, an attempted suicide, a jail break, and a conviction for the kidnapping and sexual assault of a young man, Mr. Thaw was judged sane. Released from custody he quite naturally moved to Hollywood—the realm of failures, scoundrels, and thieves.
Custer’s troops survived on hard tack, a flat biscuit that often had to be broken apart by repeated blows with a rifle stock. For this reason, Custer traveled with a personal chef on his westward campaigns. He also hunted daily, personally contributing to the near extinction of buffalo. His final meal consisted of fresh game.
Custer graduated last in his class at West Point, and set a still-standing school record of 726 demerits for bad conduct. Despite facing court-martial, he was assigned command in the Civil War and distinguished himself as a cavalry officer fighting for the Union. At age twenty-three he became the youngest general in U.S. military history. After the war, Union commanders recognized their error and dropped his rank before posting him west to fight in the Indian Wars. It was a good decision, considering Custer’s 1862 letter to a cousin in which he states his regret for seeing the Civil War end: “I would be willing, yes glad, to see a battle every day during my life.”
His dreams of martial glory ended at age thirty-six, along with the lives of everyone under his command, including two of his own brothers. At the Battle of Little Big Horn, Custer’s last words were purported to be: “Hurrah, boys, we’ve got them!” displaying a level of hubris more commonly found among kids playing video games than officers in the Army.
As with the nomenclature of cookbooks and military circles, video games are filled with abbreviations and acronyms. The most popular computer game in history is World of Warcraft, shortened to “WoW,” which is a MMORPG, a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game.” In 2006, I embarked upon my virtual life with Thorken, a Paladin on Gilneas server. I chose this character because he was a hybrid class, a powerful melee fighter who could also cast magical spells. Paladins had a historical context as well, appearing in The Song of Roland, an epic poem from the eleventh century. The word itself comes from the Latin palatinus, named for Palatine Hill, the mythical founding place of ancient Rome. More important, twenty-seven years earlier in college I’d played as a Paladin in the original Dungeons & Dragons game. That character still lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where my former roommate has maintained his gaming tradition in the basement of his house outfitted like a dungeon.
To be candid, I am a lousy gamer. My style of play is mainly to wander around “zones” in WoW, admiring the pretty pixilation, and running from most battles. In a game known for its social aspect, I never joined a guild, but prefer to “solo” quests at an inexorably slow pace. When my sons were in high school, I was somewhat of a mini-celebrity among their circle of friends for being a father who played WoW. One day they gathered around my computer to watch me. Thorken approached a low stone wall and I manipulated the mouse to make him walk quite a long way to circumvent the wall. The oldest boy said, “Why didn’t you jump the wall?” I asked how, and he tapped the keyboard’s space bar, making Thorken leap up and down. Surprised and grateful, I confessed that I didn’t know about that skill, and asked at what level I’d acquired it. All the boys hushed momentarily, unusual for teenagers. Later I learned that no one wanted to break the news—jumping is not a learned skill, but a simple action you can take at any time. Their silence was also due to stunned awe that I’d managed to level up to 30 by walking around every obstacle. No wonder it took so long. My notoriety as a WoW-playing parent crashed like an overloaded server.
The game entered my life in a more significant way a few years later when I moved to Hollywood and worked as a screenwriter for True Blood. It was a dreadful time. I missed my family and didn’t know anyone who lived in Los Angeles. Driving intimidated me to the point where I refused to drive. I was on my own for meals, which meant I mainly ate ham-and-cheese omelets or takeout from In-N-Out Burger on Sunset Boulevard. Recognizing the need to add vegetables to my diet, I tried a smoothie made of wheatgrass. The restaurant worker cut a section of live grass, liquidated it in a machine, and charged me eight dollars for an ounce. I drank it rapidly. I left feeling proud, as if perhaps I might genuinely fit into West Coast culture. Maybe I’d get a car! Later that day I became frightened by a gastric discommode of a level that I’d never previously endured. I thought I was dying. My last meal: grass for a moron!
During this lonely time my wife and I played WoW together, separated by thousands of miles. We put our cell phones on speaker, and coordinated attacks on various foes while bickering about bills and home repairs. One thing we always agreed upon was quickly repairing our armor after combat. Cooking is a secondary skill for a character in WoW, and the game offers many recipes. If you perform well enough, you are rewarded with a Chef’s Hat, which lowers all cooking times to half a second. I dutifully leveled up by gathering ingredients. My favorite recipe was Savory Deviate Delight, which had a variety of “mutagenic effects,” such as temporarily transforming the eater into a pirate or a ninja. Despite my in-game cooking skills, I never applied them to real life, and lost weight in L.A. due to poor diet and walking to work.
Eventually the show entered production and I was compelled to drive to various sets. I rented a Yaris, which I wrecked repeatedly in minor fashion. Los Angeles is a fine city in many ways—great climate, a creatively optimistic population, and terrific restaurants—but ultimately it’s a town composed of many things to bang a car against. Quite possibly, my low skill level at operating a vehicle was due to malnutrition. Regardless, I missed the simplicity of WoW, in which I could simply hit the space bar and jump over obstacles.
Serious video gamers use a variety of communication devices to talk with each other during game play. This proves helpful when two or more people are working together to defeat a particularly formidable foe. With the advent of in-game video technology, it became possible to record these sorties for future study, the same way a football coach examines game films to develop strategy. That was the case when a guild called Pals for Life attacked the Rookery, a high-level “instance” in Blackrock Spire.
The in-game video shows a team assembling in front of the entrance for last-minute planning. A smart strategy is outlined, beginning with a series of sequential attacks by mages who will suppress initial countermeasures from the opponent. During this final planning session one player abruptly bellows his war cry—“Leeroooooy Jenkins!”—and defies instructions by running into the Rookery ahead of everyone else. The rest of the team has no choice but to follow Leeroy into battle. The video depicts the melee along with an audio record of angry protest from Leeroy’s companions. Within a minute, his entire party is wiped out. The last few seconds depict the virtual corpses of all the characters while the human players castigate Leeroy for idiotic playing. His final words are: “At least I have chicken.”
This recording went viral within the WoW community, making Leeroy Jenkins the most famous name in World of Warcraft. Leeroy Jenkins moved from gaming subculture to popular culture through references on Jeopardy!, The Daily Show, South Park, Scrubs, and a TV commercial for a Toyota Tacoma. Blizzard, the company that created WoW, included a Leeroy Jenkins card in its trading card game. A figurine featured Leeroy in full battle gear holding a chicken leg in his left hand. The top honor came in the form of an in-game Achievement in which a single player must kill fifty rook whelps in fifteen seconds. The reward was a coveted title that is perpetually visible to all other players—Jenkins!
Interestingly, Custer followed the opposite path by moving from military history to video gaming. Custer’s Revenge was a controversial game released for Atari in 1982 featuring a nude George dodging arrows in an effort to “seduce” a Native American woman tied to a post. Various activist groups quite rightly protested, which helped the game sell 80,000 copies at fifty bucks apiece. Few copies exist since it was a terrible game with dreadful imagery. Apparently gamers are less concerned with social politics than pixilation.
Leeroy Jenkins’s last words have entered gaming lexicon as a phrase of Pyrrhic victory: “At least I have chicken.” It is a reference to the distraction from the virtual world by eating a meal at an inopportune time. The reverse of this is equally true—skipping meals when you should eat has unfortunate consequences such as continually wrecking rental cars in the real world.
According to chef and historian Andrew Caldwell, Custer’s last meal was:
By his own account, Leeroy Jenkins’s last meal was:
• Kentucky Fried Chicken
First Class passengers aboard the Titanic enjoyed a ten-course meal:
• Saute of chicken Lyonnaise
• Vegetable Marrow Farci
• Roast duckling, apple sauce
• Sirloin of beef, chateau potatoes
• Green peas
• Creamed carrots
• Boiled rice
• Parmentier & boiled new potatoes
• Peaches in chartreuse jelly
• Chocolate & vanilla eclairs
• French ice cream
World of Warcraft Recipe for Savory Deviate Delight
L.A. Wheatgrass Smoothie
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