Family recipes etched in stone, gravestone, that is

By Christina Morales

At his home in Washington, DC, Charlie McBride often bakes his mother’s recipe for peach cobbler. As he pours the topping over the fruit, he remembers how his mother, aunts and grandmother sat under a tree in Louisiana, cackling at one another’s stories as they peeled peaches to can for the winter.

McBride loved this family recipe so much that when his mother, O’Neal Bogan Watson, died in 2005, he had it etched on her gravestone in New Ebenezer Cemetery in Castor, Louisiana, a town of about 230 people. His mother’s instructions were simple: Bake the cobbler at 350 degrees “until done”.

“It really is just a great recipe,” said McBride, 78, a public policy consultant.

In cemeteries from Alaska to Israel, families have memorialized their loved ones with the deceased’s most cherished recipes carved in stone. These dishes — mostly desserts — give relatives a way to remember the sweet times and, they hope, bring some joy to visitors who discover them among the more traditional monuments.

“You only have one chance to make a last impression,” said Douglas Keister, a photographer and author who has written several books about cemeteries, including ‘Stories in the Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography’. (For his own memorial, Keister plans a bench with the inscription ‘Keisters go here’.)

Recipes on gravestones are a relatively new phenomenon in the long history of cemetery iconography, he said. But they have found an ardent following online. On her TikTok channel, @ghostlyarchive, Rosie Grant shares headstone recipes, drawing hundreds of thousands of views from a devoted audience fascinated by the intersection of cemeteries and cooking.

“Cemeteries are an open-air museum,” said Grant, 32, who lives in Washington, DC.

Recent advancements in gravestone technology, like lasers that can carve directly into the stone, have made it easier to leave a more personalized memorial, Keister said. Some include QR codes that lead to memorial websites.

“We use cemetery memorials as an art form,” said Jonathan Modlich, an owner of the Modlich Monument Co. in Columbus, Ohio, and the president of the Monument Builders of North America. “It’s our job as memorialists to capture a portion of that story that can be told in future generations.”

Years before Martha Kathryn Kirkham Andrews died, her fudge recipe was added to the gravestone she would eventually share with her husband, Wade Huff Andrews. The recipe drew so many onlookers at the Logan City Cemetery in Utah that the area containing her plot became known as “the fudge section”.

She and her husband had read a book about funny epitaphs and decided to make their tombstone a reflection of their lives. He chose to commemorate his life with several images on his side of the gravestone, including the B-24 Liberator bomber he flew in World War II and named Salt Lake Katie after his wife. She picked the fudge recipe she often took to church functions, club meetings and other get-togethers.

“When she made fudge, you can pretty much guarantee that it was going out the door,” said their daughter, Janice Johnson, 75, of Syracuse, Utah.

When Wade Andrews died in 2000, the monument company they hired to create the memorial engraved an error in the recipe, calling for too much vanilla. A generation of cemetery visitors presumably made the too-runny fudge before the mistake was corrected after Martha Andrews died in 2019.

For Richard Dawson, 71, of Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, memories of his family’s holidays are best called up by tasting the spritz cookies made by his mother, Naomi Odessa Miller Dawson. They were also a favourite at Richard Dawson’s office, but when a co-worker once asked for the recipe, his mother said she wouldn’t give it away.

Dawson had the recipe etched on her gravestone. “At one point, I thought she may feel like I betrayed her,” he said. “But I think she’s happy because of all the attention the headstone has received.”

Allison C. Meier discovered Naomi Dawson’s spritz recipe a few years ago while walking around Green-Wood Cemetery in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, looking for unusual headstones for a tour she leads. The open-book shape of the headstone caught her eye, and as she moved closer, she was surprised to see a recipe instead of a religious symbol.

The discovery inspired Meier to co-write a zine during the pandemic on the gravestone recipes she found. She titled it ‘Cooking With the Dead’.

“Recipes are such a beautiful way of remembering people,” said Meier, 37, who lives in the Flatbush neighbourhood of Brooklyn. “You’re still following in their footsteps and putting ingredients together the way they did.”

In Nome, Alaska, Bonnie June Johnson was known for her strict leadership of the town’s Division of Motor Vehicles office and for the sweetness of her no-bake oatmeal cookies, said her daughter, Julie Johnson Szczech, 52, of Fairbanks, Alaska. The recipe was inscribed on Johnson’s gravestone in 2007 at the Nome City Cemetery, along with an etching of a Cool Whip container. (She collected dozens of them.)

The recipe calls for shelf-stable ingredients, like quick oats and Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix that are relatively easy to find in a state where more perishable foods often are not.

Even the man who ploughed the snow from Johnson’s front yard did an “extra good job because he got those cookies,” her daughter said.

The recipe for Ida Kleinman’s nut roll cookies, her most popular, can be found in Hebrew on her tombstone in Rehovot Cemetery in Rehovot, Israel. Kleinman, who was born in Romania and married a Holocaust survivor, stuffed the dough with ground pecans, strawberry jam and Turkish delight, said her son, Yossi Kleinman, 65, of Rehovot.

When he goes to visit the grave his parents share, he likes to sit and watch the passers-by. “I just want people to notice the stone,” he said, adding that he has seen some of them jot down the recipe.

An early entry in the genre was Maxine Kathleen Poppe Menster’s 1994 headstone in Cascade Community Cemetery in Cascade, Iowa, featuring a German Christmas cookie recipe from her great-grandparents. When she was a child, Menster’s parents hung the sugar cookies on her Christmas tree, said her daughter Jane Menster, 66, of Bernard, Iowa.

When making the cookies every December, Maxine Menster assigned the family to various stations in the kitchen: She rolled out the dough, her mother baked the cookies and her children decorated them with coloured sprinkles.

“A cemetery doesn’t have to be a place of sadness,” her daughter said. “It can be a place of great memories. It might spur people to talk about the good memories instead of the last memory.”

-New York Times



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