Article by Joanna Sarah-Freedman
It might sound somewhat mushy to say that you can preserve somebody’s spirit through food.
But the truth of the matter is, whether it’s your grandmother’s chocolate cake or a special family pasta sauce, many of us have a dish that reminds us of a certain feeling, a time in our lives or a person who is no longer with us.
Often, they’re passed down through the generations, be it via memory, word of mouth or tatty pieces of paper that are tweaked and lovingly hoarded over the years.
But did you know that people have also been etching recipes onto gravestones? It’s no greater metaphor for the fact that, at least for some people, food really is a legacy.
Recipe graves are extremely rare – let’s just say you’re unlikely to find one in your local cemetery – but their little known existence is something that LA based librarian, Rosie Grant catapulted into public consciousness during the pandemic.
Interning at a cemetery in DC whilst studying archiving at the University of Maryland, Rosie, 33, became fascinated with how unique graves could be, exploring the varying details people included in their epitaphs and the evolution of tombstones over the years.
It was then she across an article about a Brooklyn based recipe on a gravestone, “and that kind of opened the door to exploring the others,” she tells Twisted. “If you Google recipe gravestones, you can see a few news reports…a random tweet, but I soon realised there’s a lot more of these.”
Having taken up cooking and TikToking (like just about everyone during the pandemic), she decided to combine all three interests on her page, @ghostlyarchive, which she had started as part of a uni project.
Check it out below:
Trying recipes inscribed on tombstones. Let me know if you’ve found others #cemeteryexploring #bakersoftiktok #recipegravestone #gravestonerecipe #taphophile #gravetok #cemterytok #cemeterytiktok #bakingrecipe
Whilst the rest of us where knocking up sourdough loaves and feta pasta, Rosie instead embarked on a mission to bring some of these beloved grave recipes back from the dead.
She had no idea how far her journey would go…
Rosie Grant’s gravestone recipes
“The first one that I both heard about and then ended up visiting was Naomi Miller Dawson. She’s in Brooklyn, New York, and oh, she has such a beautiful grave,” Rosie recalls.
Dawson’s grave is designed to look like an open cookbook, and inscribed on the pages was a spritz cookie recipe.
For a first attempt at a grave recipe, Rosie was met with a challenge. The tombstone featured only seven ingredients (butter, sugar, vanilla, an egg, flour, baking powder and salt) and no instructions. Plus, to make matters harder she didn’t even know what spritz cookies were.
“I made little circle cookies – like sugar cookies. Then, TikTok became a crowdsource, a bunch of people commented like ‘oh, you’re supposed to use a cookie press for a spritz cookie’,” she recalls. “I got a cookie press, watched a bunch of YouTube videos on how to use it and baked them again.
“It was really fun learning how to use the [tool], and also seeing how many people were also interested.”
As delicious as the cookies were, Rosie says the most special part was the link it provided to the person behind the recipe.
“Apparently, Naomi didn’t share this cookie recipe until she was on her deathbed,” she explains. “You could say she literally took this recipe to her grave.”
Rosie was so touched by the story that she even visited the grave alongside her mother and brought a batch of cookies along with her – a ritual she has repeated with several recipes since.
“It’s hard to describe it but you feel a little bit more connected to this person afterwards, despite the fact they’re virtually a stranger,” she says.
Since her attempt at Naomi Miller Dawson’s cookies, Rosie’s hunger for recreating grave recipes has grown, and so has her social media following, some of whom even suggested recipe graves in their own hometowns for her to visit.
“I now have a Google map of where all of the graves are,” she says. So far, she’s cooked 12. The majority have been in America, whilst two are from Israel.
The second recipe Rosie made was Martha Kathryn Kirkham Andrews’ famous fudge, engraved into a headstone in Utah, and when she visited the grave she came across others who were also paying tribute with their own batches.
Since then, she’s also made Christmas cookies from Maxine Menster in Iowa, and date and nut bread from Constance G. Galberd in New York. Plus, she’s even cooked the recipe of a holocaust survivor.
‘Grandma Ida’s nut rolls’ come from a grave in Rehovot, Israel, and required Rosie to seek translation from a colleague, as it was written in Hebrew.
“That was easily one of my favourite ones,” she says. “It’s one of the few gravestones that actually has all the instructions written out, not just like the ingredients, and it was delicious.
“I haven’t visited that one in person, unfortunately, but hopefully in the future.”
Whilst she’s still scratching the surface, so far, Rosie has uncovered only female recipe graves, mostly desserts. Interestingly, they seem to be a relatively new phenomena, too.
“The oldest one that I know about died in 1994,” Rosie says. “It’s a very recent living memory and these people still have relatives in the area who are cooking these recipes.
FYI recipe also calls for Turkish Delight, but I couldn’t find any locally #graverecipe #cemeterytiktok #gastroobscura #gravetok #cemeteryexploring #bakingtiktok #bakersoftiktok #recipevideo #cemeterytok #taphophile #atlasobscura #gravestone
“For me, this adds an extra nostalgic connection. The son of a Louisiana recipe gravestone…he still makes his mother’s and peach cobbler, and a couple of grandchildren of these people have commented on my TikToks, too.
“It’s been very cool just to see such a community [of living people] still connected through gravestone recipes.”
This is all the more poignant for Rosie given that she also experienced her own grief recently.
“Both of my grandmothers died during the pandemic, and the thing that helps me remember them the best is like cooking a thing that I had with them while they were alive,” she says.
“You’re smelling things that are familiar, you’re tasting things that are familiar, you’re looking at it – all your five senses are engaged and you’re thinking about them.
“One of my grandmothers made a yellow cake that we were, like, so obsessed with. Turns out it was just like a box cake, but it didn’t even matter, eating something that they use to makes you feel so much more connected to them”.
She adds that cooking other people’s sentimental recipes has helped her to reframe her grief, and her own ideas about death.
“When I was growing up I was like the kid who was afraid of death,” she says. “Obviously death, dying and our own mortality is an extremely sad and depressing thing, but there’s also a flip side to it, too.
“We all thought about our mortality quite a lot more during the pandemic, and so I think for me, I felt more comfortable with talking about it not necessarily as a negative thing.
“[I realised] there’s a beauty in memorialising someone in the way that they want to be remembered. It’s been a really special journey of just seeing a new side of these people. Seeing them as more than a name.”
You can keep up to date with Rosie’s gravestone recipe hunt, or submit any you know about, here.