lIt all started during the lockdown. Like many people, I tried baking for the first time and got a TikTok account. Less often I started to learn a lot about cemeteries. I’m studying to be an archivist, and when the pandemic started, I had just started an internship at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC, one of the oldest cemeteries in the US.
My interest soon turned to more than just work. During the pandemic, my local cemetery was one of the few places I could take a daily walk and I started to see how interesting cemeteries are as repositories of history: you can see how tombstone styles have changed over the years, how different symbols become more or less important, and also what kind of information people choose to put on their tombstones. It used to be all names and dates, genealogy stuff, but nowadays people like to add their hobbies or something more personal like their sexual orientation.
I read online that some people had even put their favorite recipe on their tombstone, so one day I thought, why not combine all three of my new lockdown hobbies and try baking all the tombstone recipes and show the results on TikTok†
There are only about 10 so far that I have found, mostly by searching online. The first I tried was a spritz cookie that sat on a New York tombstone. The recipe was more of a list of ingredients: a cup of margarine, an egg, a teaspoon of vanilla. I had to guess the process without really knowing what a spritz cookie was. It tasted good, but what was more surprising was how many people viewed my first post – there’s the TikTok niche in the graveyard and the TikTok niche baking, but I was the first to bring these two audiences together. What was nice was that everyone cooperated and said, “My grandmother made 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 recipes and got more feedback from everyone, I started to understand how important cooking is to people and to family histories.
My grandmother died of Covid and making the tombstone recipes reminded me of this special yellow cake she made for our grandchildren on our birthdays. It was so good. It’s nice to think about the recipes that have a similar meaning for other families – maybe at gatherings and holidays they know that certain dishes will appear. Re-cooking my family recipes is a way to bring back those strong memories: When I think of that cake, I think of my grandmother and all the birthdays we spent together.
Another, more banal realization I had while preparing my grandmother’s epitaph was that it is very expensive to have words carved into a tombstone. You pay by letter. That must be why many of the tombstone recipes are so scarce. The ones that turned out to be the best for me are the more detailed ones — the most recent one is like a pecan and cinnamon jam bun. You just roll it up and bake it, then slice it and add powdered sugar. The headstone shared a detailed account of the process, which was helpful. I will definitely make that again.
In addition to learning how to cook, I loved researching the lives of the women behind the recipes—until now, all the recipe gravestones I’ve found have been for women. There has been a Holocaust survivor; someone who has worked at the post office all her life; and an Alaskan woman who had the Cool Whip imitation cream brand logo engraved on her headstone.
The idea of choosing a stone terrifies me – I don’t know yet how I want the world to remember me. But for these women, their recipe seemed like the perfect way to connect with their families after they left. And they wanted to share it with everyone, which is nice. My dream dinner would be to bring all these women together and we would try all the recipes and get to know each other. However, it would be a full dinner — it’s all baking recipes, comfort foods, and desserts.
As told to Felix Bazalgette
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