For nearly as long as rosemary has been used in the kitchen for its culinary allure, it’s also been a symbol of remembrance. In fact, centuries ago, sprigs of rosemary were laid at the grave of loved ones as a token of loyalty and commemoration. It’s even mentioned in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when the distraught Ophelia who’s lost her father says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” Given my affinity for both food and culture, I’ve always held close to that bit of symbolism, so when my husband lost his great uncle this past week and we went to pay our respects to his family, I thought it an opportune moment to make a gesture that would comfort both the belly and the soul.
Rosemary is a curious herb, very particular about what other ingredients it will pair well with, despite how cooperative they may or may not be. But a classic taste combination is that of rosemary and lemon, so I decided to make a Lemon Rosemary Cake—a cake I dubbed my Remembrance Cake—and making it, as I look back now, was every bit as much an exercise in catharsis as falling to your knees in prayers. For some of us, our temple is our kitchen, our pew is our cutting board, and our altar is our stove. Cooking something for those you love and for those who mourn, as you sit at a table bathed in morning sunlight, affords you the time to remember as well.
That remembrance begins as you squeeze each lemon half you’ve cut, extracting from it every last drop of juice. It’s a motion that requires strong hands at a moment when you may not feel so strong, but there is comfort in the weight of a lemon resting in your palm. That remembrance continues as you pluck the leaves off each sprig of rosemary, giving careful diligence to a task that is not for the impatient, and persists even as you grate the lemons, stripping them of their zest and leaving them in a pile—emptied of their juice and bared of their skin.
But no matter how much pleasure can be plucked from the alchemy of cooking and how much peace can be attained by expressing your grief through that hands-on process, nothing can surpass handing that cake to a loved one, whose loss is still a wound and not yet a scar. For in that moment, when it passes from hands to hands and you say, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” you say much more. In that moment you’ve given them not only sustenance, but you’ve also given them a new memory, forged in a time of loss, that will feed them for years to come.