In Mandy Mikulencak’s The Last Suppers, Ginny Polk, the prison chef at the fictional Greenmount Penitentiary in Louisiana, takes special care in preparing death row inmates’ final meals. Having grown up around the prison—her father worked there until he was murdered, and his best friend, Roscoe Simms, is the warden—Ginny knows these prisoners aren’t monsters, and fulfilling this last wish has become a kind of mission for her. Sometimes the weight of it is almost too much: “Planning the meals,” writes Mikulencak in The Last Suppers, “plagued her thoughts and brought on headaches and stomach pains.”
Set between the 1930s and 1950s, The Last Suppers is part redemption tale, part murder mystery, and even part cookbook. It’s the story of how Ginny and Roscoe, now her lover, delve deeper into the facts of Ginny’s father’s murder. They also come to terms with a lifetime lived among these prisoners in, as Mikulencak says, “one of the most desolate, dehumanizing places on earth during a time in our history known for inhumane prison conditions, systemic racism, and sexual inequality.” It’s a book sure to spark discussion in book clubs and reading groups, raising issues that are as pressing today as they were 70 years ago.
Mikulencak began the novel after a conversation with a friend about Texas death row inmates; she learned of “a young man who wanted Frosted Flakes and milk for his final meal. This illustrated for me that these requests have little to do with taste and desire, and everything to do with memory and emotion,” says Mikulencak. That insight sparked the realization that she could find her characters’ pasts and personalities through the meals they asked for—each meal is a story in itself.
Food is almost a character in The Last Suppers. Mikulencak cites one particular meal as an example of what she was trying to do: “an elderly inmate named Horace asks for the fruitcake his mother, a New Orleans housemaid, used to bake for her employer to give as holiday gifts. The mother was allowed to bring home those that were burnt,” says Mikulencak. “The inmate asks Ginny to burn the edges so that it tastes like the ones from his childhood.”
In moments like this, whole lives suddenly unfold, and these prisoners, otherwise lost to history, vividly come to life. The book also features an appendix with recipes. As part of her research, Mikulencak, an amateur chef and baker, went in search of cookbooks from the ’30s. “They were yellowed and held together with tape, but what a gold mine!” The recipes include Horace’s “Calumet Fruitcake.”
Though Mikulencak says she didn’t set out to write an “issues” book, she soon realized her story would speak deeply about racism, inequality, and prisoners’ rights. “I think it’s natural,” says Mikulencak, “that readers will gravitate to discussions on capital punishment and whether current methods are humane and actually deter crime.”
The Last Suppers is also the first title from Kensington’s new hardcover fiction imprint, John Scognamiglio Books, overseen by Kensington’s longtime editor in chief. Scognamiglio began at Kensington in 1992 and has served as editor in chief since 2005; the launch of the imprint coincides with his 25th anniversary at the press. John Scognamiglio Books is currently slated to publish one more title in 2018—Eldonna Edwards’s 1960s coming of age novel This I Know—and two historical novels by debut authors in 2019.
Throughout his career, Scognamiglio has been committed to discovering high-quality commercial fiction, and in that way, he says, “the books being highlighted in my imprint are no different from the books I’ve published in the past. I’ve always loved working with debut authors and hopefully helping them build long-lasting careers.”
Scognamiglio says he’s very honored to have an imprint of his own though “I’m not the kind of person who likes having the spotlight shined on me.” But, he continues, “having my name appear on my books recognizes the hard work of my parents. My love of books comes from both my mother and father, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for them.”