Artist Julie Green (1961-2021) is best known for the series “Last Supper,” in which she created 1,000 glazed ceramic plates documenting the last meals of people on death row. Her subsequent project was a companion to “Last Supper” called “First Meal.”  

In “First Meal,” Green created images, using paint and other media, documenting the first meals chosen by wrongly convicted people on their release from prison. The information about the meals, in most of the cases, came from the exonerees’ responses to a questionnaire developed by Green and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. Some of those works have been collected into a forthcoming book, along with essays by Kirk Johnson about the meal and the exoneree.

The excerpt below is about Randy Steidl, who was wrongfully convicted of two murders that occurred in eastern Illinois. Steidl spent 17 years in the Danville Correctional Center in Illinois before a team of journalism students from Northwestern discovered evidence that helped win his release. Steidl’s first meal upon his release was in Covington, Indiana, in a restaurant less than seven miles from the prison.

Julie Green, artist:

The painted text reads “Randy Steidl, first steak in seventeen years, Beef House near Danville Correctional Center.” When a specific restaurant is mentioned in an exoneree’s questionnaire response, I research interior, exterior, menu design, and the food served. Dozens of large, festive blue and white Spode platters line the walls of Beef House. They are the décor. Those colors and textures speak to me of home—Spode and flow-blue dishes have graced our table and influenced my work for decades. They also speak to the question of what makes art and who labels it. In this country, most historical ceramics and textiles are functional or decorative, and in college, I was told ceramics were not considered high art, but “just craft.” That was enough to encourage me to examine the medium more deeply. Real art can be hidden in plain sight. Here, a Spode platter holds the meat.

Kirk Johnson, journalist:

The rural Midwest is a distinctive place in geography and culture, and in the rhythms of small-town agriculture and farming derived from its deep black soils. Randy Steidl’s story unfolded there. It’s about an hour’s drive from the tiny community of Paris, Illinois—population, 8,200—where Karen and Dyke Rhoads were found, stabbed to death, in their home in July 1986 to the Danville Correctional Center, from which Steidl was released in 2004 after sixteen years behind bars after his wrongful conviction. From Danville to Covington, Indiana—population 2,500—where he ate steak at Beef House Restaurant and Dinner Theater is barely ten minutes.

Paris, Danville, and Covington. Dots that Americans drive through or fly over. Places where farm and feed stores are social and economic hubs. Where murders are rare and profoundly shocking when they happen. Where family-owned businesses like Beef House can thrive for generations. Where you can drive through whole counties and never encounter a traffic light.  

The Rhoads were newlyweds, married barely a year, both in their twenties. A firefighting crew found their house in flames. Inside, their charred bodies had each been stabbed dozens of times. It was a horror story that played out in Illinois media like an echo of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which told the story of the Clutters, a farm family murdered in their home in Kansas in 1959.

Two of the prosecution witnesses against Steidl, a thirty-five-year-old construction worker at the time of his arrest, were shaky from the beginning. One later recanted her testimony, then disavowed her recantation. One claimed to have seen a broken lamp in the Rhoads house that was used to beat the victims—a powerful visual image that came up over and over in the prosecution’s case as a symbol of the savagery unfolding inside the Rhoads household. Years later, investigators concluded that the lamp was broken by firefighters as they rushed in to fight the blaze. Steidl was sentenced to death. A codefendant, Herb Whitlock, got life in prison.

A crime in a rural town had brought out the best and the worst in the people who were touched by it.

The Beef House, by contrast, at the other end of Steidl’s journey through American injustice, is all about pride, tradition, and continuity, which are also hallmarks of a region of the country I’ve visited many times and come to love. Businesses that stay in a family for generations are like that. They come to feel almost sacred to customers, and family members too—stuffed with old bits of lore about how things came to be, mistakes still chuckled over decades later, triumphs, accidents, and tight scrapes when the economic future looked grim.

And the name says it, too: beef. Right there as you come in, slabs of it, deep red and marbled with fat. It’s not hiding back in the kitchen. Bob Wright wants you to see the star attraction and smell it first thing.

“When you walk in the door, we have a meat case and we cut all the steaks every day,” said Wright, who grew up in the restaurant, founded by his family in 1964.

At Beef House, the dinner rolls are stars, alongside the rib eyes. They trace back to Purdue University near Indianapolis, where Wright was a student in the 1960s, studying hotel and restaurant management. To help pay for tuition, he worked in the school cafeteria, and fell in love with the dinner rolls they served. So, being a curious kitchen guy, he asked how they did it. What was the secret?

“Some of the older ladies showed me how,” said Wright.

When he came back to Covington, he took the recipe he’d learned and began to play with it, gradually transforming a college cafeteria staple into a signature of Beef House cuisine, and beyond that a tradition in its own right in southern Indiana, especially around Thanksgiving. People come from many miles around to buy the rolls fresh, or frozen to cook at home, and have them on their table when families gather for the holidays. Local grocery stores, at that time of year especially, stock Beef House rolls for their customers.

“In November we sell about 60,000 dozen,” he said. “About 80,000 pounds of flour a week comes through the kitchen to make it all happen.”

Steidl’s conviction was reversed in part through the effort of a team of journalism students at Northwestern University who re-examined the case in 1999 for a class project. In 2000, an Illinois State Police report, by one of its own, Lieutenant Michale Callahan, concluded that the convictions in the case “had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt” and that another suspect “should still be the focus of the investigation.”

Wright told me he didn’t remember a man named Steidl coming to eat and celebrate with his lawyers on a day in late May 2004. It’s a busy place and it was a long time ago. But no matter what, Wright said, Steidl would certainly have been served some rolls.

Julie Green (1961–2021) was a professor of art at Oregon State University. Her work has been featured in 32 exhibitions in the United States and abroad and in publications such as the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ceramics Monthly, and Gastronomica.

Kirk Johnson worked at the New York Times for 38 years, including 15 years as a national correspondent covering the American West. In 2001, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the Times’s multi-part series, “How Race Is Lived in America.”

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