It all started during lockdown. Like many people, I tried baking for the first time and got a TikTok account. Less commonly, I started learning a lot about cemeteries. I’m studying to be an archivist, and when the pandemic began I had just started an internship at Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC, one of the oldest cemeteries in the US.
Soon my interest became about more than just work. During the pandemic, my local cemetery was one of the few places I could go for a daily walk and I began to see how interesting cemeteries are as repositories for history: you can see how gravestone styles have changed over the years, how different symbols have become more or less important, and also what kind of information people choose to put on their gravestones. In the past it was all names and dates, genealogical stuff, but nowadays people like to add their hobbies or something more personal such as their sexual orientation.
I read online that some people had even put their favorite recipe on their gravestone, so one day I thought, why not combine all three of my new lockdown hobbies and try to bake all the gravestone recipes and show the results on TikTok?
There are only about 10 so far that I’ve found, mostly through searching online. The first one I tried was a spritz cookie that was on a gravestone in New York. The recipe was more like a list of ingredients – one cup of margarine, one egg, one teaspoon of vanilla. I had to guess the process without really knowing what a spritz cookie was. It tasted OK, but more surprising was how many people viewed my first post – there’s the cemetery TikTok niche, and the baking TikTok niche, but I was the first to bring these two audiences together. What was nice was everyone weighing in, saying, “My grandmother used to make this too” or the different ways their family made the recipe.
Since then I’ve made date and nut bread, “no bake” cookies, Christmas cookies, fudge and many others. As I made more of the recipes and got more feedback from everyone, I began to understand how important cooking is for people and for family histories.
My grandmother died from Covid, and making the gravestone recipes made me think about this special yellow cake she made for us grandkids on our birthdays. It was so good. It’s nice to think about the recipes that hold a similar significance for other families – perhaps at gatherings and holidays they know certain dishes will show up. Cooking my family recipes again is a way to bring back those strong memories: when I think of that cake, I remember my grandmother and all the birthdays we spent together.
Another more banal realization I had when we were preparing my grandmother’s epitaph was that it is very expensive to get words carved into a gravestone. You pay by the letter. Which must be why lots of the gravestone recipes are so sparse. The ones that have turned out best for me are the more detailed ones – the most recent is like a jam roll with pecans and cinnamon. You just roll it up and bake it, then slice it and add powdered sugar. The gravestone shared a detailed overview of the process, which was helpful. I will definitely be making that one again.
As well as learning to cook, I’ve loved researching the lives of the women behind the recipes – so far all the gravestones with recipes that I’ve found have been for women. There’s been a Holocaust survivor; someone who worked at the post office her whole life; and one woman in Alaska who got the logo for the Cool Whip imitation cream brand engraved on her headstone.
The idea of selecting a stone is terrifying to me – I don’t know how I want the world to remember me just yet. But for these women, their recipe seemed like the perfect way to connect with their families after they’d gone. And they wanted to share it with everybody, which is beautiful. My dream dinner party would be to bring all these women together and we would try all the recipes and get to know one another. It would be a rich dinner, though – they are all baking recipes, comfort foods and desserts.
As told to Felix Bazalgette
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