Last words and last suppers

An odd rumination on the final remarks of the world's luminaries, coupled with a spirited defense of the much-maligned sandwich invented by Elvis' recently deceased cook.

Topics: George W. Bush, Al Gore, Donald Trump,

Last words and last suppers

According to the Syrian government, the last person to speak with Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad before his death June 10 was Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. “His last words,” Lahoud reported, “were: ‘Our destiny is to build a better future for our countries, a safe future for our children. We have to give them something better than what we inherited.’ And then there was a sudden silence.”

That must be when the piano landed on him. The official cause of death was said to be heart failure, which is possible too — bad things happen when you forget to stop and take a breath. Certainly, we can rule out cancer of the tongue.

Good thing Lahoud knew shorthand. Whatever it was that finally silenced the Middle East strongman, at least they didn’t strike up the band before he got through the big soliloquy. Not everyone is so lucky when the curtain drops. Contrast Assad’s stirring valedictory address with Tallulah Bankhead’s final words in 1968. “Codeine,” she reportedly muttered. “Bourbon.”

Diagnosis: Fatal P.R. Too many physicians and not enough spin doctors mean terminally bad posterity management. Public figures will surely take note of the recently deceased Syrian president’s clever planning and begin arranging their own farewell speeches with similar care. Some parting thoughts currently in development:

In a brief speech after being run over by a crosstown bus, America Online CEO Steve Case sounded upbeat. “I believe this unexpected merger will take me to entirely new levels,” he enthused. “My bargaining position is excellent.”

And in a somewhat less brief speech, just before falling victim to an unexplained bug, Bill Gates remarked, “This unwarranted intrusion by Big Brother will severely restrict my ability to thrive on innovation and honest competition. I am being asked to reveal my source code without financial reimbursement. My lawyers will appeal.”

Al Gore has passed away. Cause of death was failure to thrive. “I look forward to meeting with the controlling legal authority,” said the vice president.



“This is huge. Unbelievable!” declared Donald Trump, fatally choking on the newest entree at Dean & DeLuca. “My death will create tremendous shock waves. Incredible! The Boss will play the funeral. Fantastic! OK, I’m dead. Now what?”

“I’m moving toward the light!” cried the Rev. Jerry Falwell. “I see. I see. Uh-oh.”

“Whoa, what is this, some kind of quiz?” muttered George W. Bush from the depths of an unexplained coma that was definitely not caused by any previous illegal activity. “Let my opponents dwell in the past. My conscience is clear.”

“Help! Two homicidal Colombians in stylish size 12 shoes!” — Last words of Nicole Brown Simpson (recently revealed, after determined private investigation, by her former husband).

“Yes, it is,” said Regis Philbin. And he died.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

A peanut butter and banana sandwich is a glorious thing

Can a person’s historical importance be gauged by the amount of obituary time he or she gets on CNN? If so, Assad beats Mary Jenkins Langston cold. But Langston, who died of complications after two strokes on May 30 in Memphis, Tenn., played her part, too. From 1966 until 1977, she was Elvis Presley’s cook. Someday, perhaps, some history professor will conduct a class on the role of Syria’s president in late 20th century Middle East politics. That class will be nearly empty. Most of the students will be next door, debating the hottest topic in late 20th century studies: How did Langston stay out of the electric chair?

Alas, the Langston trial was never held. It would surely have been a mini-Nuremberg, with the defendant in the dock protesting, “I merely followed orders.” And the orders kept on coming. Chicken-fried steaks and cheeseburgers, pigs’ feet and meatloaf — just about anything that could be caught by the leg and stuffed with bacon was delivered upstairs to Presley, no doubt sitting in front of the TV, pistol in hand, waiting for Robert Goulet to show up. There were no guns vs. butter debates at Graceland — Elvis came down heavily in both camps. In the 1996 BBC documentary “The Burger and the King,” Langston described watching her employer eat. “He’d have butter running down his arms,” she said.

No other treat was as famous, or as buttery, as the fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. Now that the principals in this sad culinary tale have passed, it is time to rescue a noble and perfectly healthy comestible from the greasy netherworld to which history has banished it. Like snakes or politically active Buddhists, the peanut butter and banana sandwich has been hit with a blanket of fear and condemnation merely for the sins of a few.

The legendary snack was Elvis’ idea. As Langston later recalled, she tried five variations, all of them failures, before Elvis’ father, Vernon, suggested toasting the bread first. It was a crucial turning point. Before the toasting breakthrough, Langston’s attempts had proved soggy. This was understandable — the Elvis method required two sticks of butter in the frying pan for every three sandwiches. “You’d turn it and turn it and turn it until all the butter was soaked up,” she explained. “That’s when he liked it.”

Ever since the King toppled from his throne, suffering from a midtown-Manhattan-style gridlock of the cardiovascular system, writers have pointed an accusing finger at fried PB&Bs. This despite the obvious fact that, broken into its constituent parts, the peanut butter and banana sandwich represents nothing but wholesome goodness. Graham crackers can kill you, too, if you crumble them up and put a cheesecake on top.

For as long as I can remember I’ve started my day with three peanut butter and banana sandwiches — no more, no less. Multigrain bread, sugarless peanut butter, perfectly ripe bananas thickly sliced in rows — them’s good eatin’, and a powerful meal that can kick you all the way through to late afternoon. Nowhere does it say that these nutritious concoctions must become deep-fried delivery systems for myocardial infarction.

Is it the peanut butter that scares you? Bah. Yes, it contains fat, but not the nasty saturated stuff that provides livestock with posthumous vengeance on its executioners. Nuts and legumes are staples of wise nutrition — just ask our woodland friends. Personal observation bears this out. While dishes of ice cream or coconut milk curries will leave me with a spare tire fit for a Mack truck, my daily consumption of mashed peanuts, fresh fruit and whole-grain bread keeps me obnoxiously trim.

When making your peanut butter and banana sandwich, remember to use lightly freckled bananas; green ones are a gustatory scandal on a par with mushy pasta and overcooked vegetables. Also, it’s a good idea to pour off any excess oil that has collected atop the peanut butter jar. Finally — and this is important — do not under any circumstances top off your sandwich with a pound of hot, dripping bacon fat. Elvis was reportedly of the opinion that there was no dish in the world that couldn’t be improved with a heap o’ bacon. Legend has it that he would fly to Glendale, Colo., just to visit the Colorado Gold Mine Company restaurant. There he would order the Fool’s Gold loaf — an entire Italian bread loaf slathered in butter and hollowed out to contain a jar of Skippy peanut butter, a jar of Smucker’s grape jelly and a pound of fried bacon.

Think of the Colorado River, frothing white and treacherous as it reaches a narrow passage. So too were the majestic arteries of the King — blood screaming through the rapids, over jagged shoals of coagulated grease and grape jelly. Gradually, the lean, predatory Elvis of the Sun years morphed into the guy who couldn’t reach his toes without calling Federal Express.

That Langston reached the age of 78 suggests that she instinctively grasped the first rule of successful dope dealers — don’t get high on your own supply. While Elvis spent his days researching recipes for some hypothetical “Pills ‘n’ Lard Cookbook,” Langston dutifully went about her work. “He said that the only thing in life he got any enjoyment out of was eating,” Langston told the BBC.

She can’t really be blamed for doing her job. But don’t blame the bananas, either. They were probably the only living things in that pantry trying to help out.

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>