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Funerary cookbooks and recipes that go beyond the grave

Several cultures around the world have a repertoire of funerary books and recipes that celebrate the departed in the most unique way

The recipe for Miller-Dawson's spritz cookies is seen on the grave of Naomi Odessa Miller-Dawson at Greenwood Cemetery in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
The recipe for Miller-Dawson's spritz cookies is seen on the grave of Naomi Odessa Miller-Dawson at Greenwood Cemetery in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Yuki IWAMURA / AFP)

The recipe for Kay’s Fudge couldn’t be a simpler one. All it takes is two big squares of chocolate and two tablespoons of butter to be melted in a pan on low heat. To this, one must then stir in one cup of milk till the mixture boils. Three cups of sugar, one teaspoon vanilla extract and a pinch of salt are the last of the ingredients that go in. All this, while the molten fudge cooks to a softball stage. Once that is achieved, it’s to be poured atop a marble slab (oh, the irony), cooled, beaten and eaten.

Yes, that’s exactly how this recipe for Kathryn Andrews’ (or, Kay) fudge that went viral in 2019 is--not written down but etched onto her gravestone. Before she died in 2019 at the grand old age of 97, Kay requested her go-to fudge recipe be engraved on her gravestone. And so, it is. Found among several other nondescript gravestones at the Logan Cemetery, Utah in the United States.

Also read | A cookie recipe from a gravestone

Feasts of the past

Funerary recipes and cookbooks replete with techniques, anecdotes and cheat tips are seen as legacies in perpetuity. Treasured heirlooms passed on from the dead to the living. And while some may see this as erring on the side of morbidity, for several cultures around the world, this is one of the most endearing and tangible ways of keeping a memory alive. Via food. It is one of the greatest common denominators that we share in life--and death too, apparently.

Still in the US, a classic dish of the Mormon religion is called “funeral potatoes”. Basically, it is a cheesy hash brown baked casserole with a crispy potato chip topping. A dish that gets its name as it is a comfort food dish generally served after a Mormon funeral service to mourners.

According to Atlas Obscura, A humble 19th century raisin pie made by the Pennsylvania Dutch community in the US took on the name of “funeral pie”. This is because it was commonly served at “wakes and community memorial services either before a person passed or after”, says the website.

Written in stone

While it may seem a tad bizarre, in the US there are entire sections of libraries dedicated to a genre of funeral cookbooks. Two such examples are Death Warmed Over: Funeral Food, Rituals, and Customs from Around the World by Lisa Rogak and The Southern Sympathy Cookbook: Funeral Foods to Die For by Perre Coleman Magness. These are both said to be repositories of recipes for the traditional food served at wakes and post burial gatherings by the families of the deceased. In fact, the former has funerary recipes from cultures as diverse as the Amish in America and the Eskimos of Alaska to the Greeks and Poles (Poland).

Interestingly, the ancient Egyptians, too, were in on this idea millennia ago. It is a well-documented fact that Egyptian hieroglyphics talk of several ‘burial feasts’ (replete with rudimentary recipes) held in memory and honour of the dead. Shards of broken pottery and food platters found in the pyramids and tombs bear evidence of having food and bread once laid out on them. Many as offerings to the dead to carry with them to the afterlife.

Recipes to die for

But perhaps, there is no other culture in the world quite like that of the Thais—both ancient and modern in this respect. One that pay such a rich, almost reverential foodie obeisance at the altar of death.

Called nang sue ngam sop these funerary cookbooks are one of the main things attendees of a funeral look forward to receiving. For, these books—oftentimes leather bound and beautifully decorated—contain not just the prized recipes of the deceased, but also food stories and even favourite food vendor recommendations. In fact, one of Thai cuisine’s most venerated dishes of massaman curry (literally Muslim curry in Thai) is said to be sourced from one such funerary cookbook. The recipe for this spicy coconut milk-based curry that can be made with either beef, chicken or lamb was apparently taken from the funerary cookbook of Longlaliew Bunnag who is said to be a descendant of a certain Persian trader called Sheikh Ahmad who came to Thailand in the year 1600.

From gravestone recipes by a late nonagenarian Utahn granny and the ancient Egyptians to a seminal tome filled with royal Thai recipes, the world of food is so much richer for the dishes from beyond the grave.

Also read | The curious case of a chai stall built on a graveyard

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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