Capo ‘Excessive’ Emil Mignolla, sentenced to the chair for his crimes, ordered for his last dinner a dish he had never eaten, only learned of recently, and frankly sounded awful.
He knew of ortolan from a moth-eaten Reader’s Digest in the sparse prison library. These songbirds were caught in nets, kept in darkness so that they would gorge, drowned in the brandy that would marinate them; then plucked, and eaten whole. Roman Emperors had the little birds’ eyes gouged out to make them eat all the more; they had been served on toast at a 16-course feast at a Paris café commissioned by William I of Prussia, for himself, Bismarck, and the Russian Tsar; and in a sweep of theatrics so egregious it seemed made up were eaten with a cloth covering the face, so as to hide one’s shameful decadence from the sight of God.
More importantly though, the birds were old-world. He doubted any few in aviaries around the states would be easily obtainable, or their owners willing to give them up. As they had to be kept live until prepared, this probably meant a quarantine after transport, as is usual for livestock and animals entering a country. Just as important was the fact the ortolan were caught in the fall as they migrated to Africa. It was presently February 3rd.
These two facts together meant it would be several more months before his last meal could be provided, and thus before Emil could be executed. That was plenty of time for ‘developments’ to occur – appeals to be made, break-outs to be hatched, ‘evidence’ to emerge, palms to be crossed.
The officer raised an eyebrow and Emil sat back in his cell with content, the letterbox of thin February sun in just the right place to cast a semblance of golden warmth across his face. He almost certainly wouldn’t have to actually eat one of the boozy bags of bones.
February became March and March wore into April with distressing inevitability. As the fall grew nearer, salvation began to look less and less likely. Some of Emil’s former underlings, inevitably promoted by his arrest, had no real reason to go to all that effort just to earn a pay cut. He knew he sure wouldn’t.
So, as his fate began to look assured, Emil’s mind wandered – not to the state of his immortal soul, but to his legacy.
‘Excy’ Emil Mignolla had not been the most memorable of mobsters. However, by pure luck his delaying tactic had ended up playing into what little reputation he did have – that of excess. His thoughts turned to how to make the best show of this.
For example, was he to cover his head with a cloth or no? Theological concerns were not a huge part of his consideration – Emil was a lapsed Catholic, but from what he remembered he doubted the omniscient Supreme Being, the Prime Mover of the heaven and the earth and the arbiter of souls could be fooled by a little bit of towel. No, his quandary was how much was he to commit to the ‘bit’ of ortolan? Was he to wear the towel and draw a direct line between ‘Excessive’ Emil Mignolla and the exuberant French epicures of old? Or did he shun the towel and show that he feared not the judgement of man nor God – unapologetic to the end, like a true gangster. What color towel would go best with his prison jumpsuit? Would he be able to get one monogrammed from within jail?
Next was that matter of the little songbird’s head. The bird was traditionally placed feet-first into the mouth, and Emil didn’t plan on defying convention in that regard; he’d probably look quite undignified with two tiny avian legs protruding from his gullet. So was he to crunch the neck right through and pluck the head from his besmirch’ed lips? Or, encompass the whole creature and let the sharp snail-shell snap of the poor thing’s skull between his molars and the juices running down his chin be his ghoulish finis?
Did he get a wine pairing? Should he see if it was too late to specify a preferred Armagnac?
The day arrived, as days are wont to, and Emil found himself entirely focused on his performance, rather than the grim curtain call.
As he had hoped, some press had shown. A light smattering, not as many as he’d have liked, but Emil Mignolla had courted the public eye long enough to know that a story, a legend, was perfectly capable of taking off from humble beginnings, so long as it was reported at all.
The dish was brought on a stainless steel platter. Without too much straining Emil could make-believe it was silver. Against the advice of the prison chaplain he had gone without the towel to show that he did not feat God – classic mobster, he thought, protesting his innocence to the end.
The cloche was lifted, and the gradual patter of flashbulbs began. Cooked, the bird was a small, smooth, yellow thing of almost bilious colour, lightly goosepimpled from where it had been plucked. Faced with this simple nugget of decadence, Emil realised he had been entirely focused on what he would do once the morsel was in his mouth – how did he pick it up? By the beak? Firmly pinching each side like an oyster? Gripped two-fingers above, thumb below like a cigar? Between the middle and index fingers like a dame holds a cigarette? Pinched like a plucked grape between thumb and pointer, remaining fingers cocked like an ‘ok’ sign? Good God, he had never before considered how many ways there were to simply pick a small object up!
Perspiring lightly, he went for what seemed natural, the ‘supported oyster’ – thumb and middle finger each side, first finger supporting the head. He fumbled, and the greasy thing fell to the cold concrete floor.
Mortified, the colour drained form Emil’s face as the light shower of camera flashes surged to a heavy storm. He looked to the warden pleadingly. Did they have another?
They did not. Emil Mignolla added the five-second rule to the laws he had broken.
Trying again, he went for the universally recognised ‘here comes the airplane’ grip; hardly a graceful grip to begin with, and doubly so when the airplane comes for thee.
The thing slid in, one side now cooler than the other, tasting mostly of brandy and a little of game. It was not bad, but almost immediately Emil gagged. The tiny leg claw on the bird’s little leg had hooked onto the inside of its throat. Evidently, the chef didn’t know whether to remove it, and Emil had known no better.
He crunched down involuntarily. Smaller bones could be crushed harmlessly, but the larger ones were to be spat out. Instead, they shattered, lacerating his gums and palate with fine shards of skeleton, bringing tears to his eyes as the supposed-to-be-sybarite juices oozing down his chin were tinged red with his own blood.
Turning puce, as he had chomped below the head he tried to salvage at least one crumb of dignity by gracefully plucking the bunting’s head from between his teeth and laying it back on the silver tray with a flourish. Half a lung flumped over his bottom lip landing on his crotch, while he lifted the head high trailing most of the bird’s minute gizzards behind it in a way that managed to be deeply upsetting without the level of grim theatrical macabre he was hoping for.
The photon din of the flashbulbs began to merge with the static at the corners of his vision that were a sign he was losing consciousness. The warden saved him from choking, but when Emil regained his faculties he was so mortified he could just die!