Here is a problem that a lot of people don’t have: When you are a food blogger who has written extensively about how meaningful holiday rituals are, it can be a struggle to come up with new content and recipes for the salivating masses, i.e. you guys. By definition, tradition dictates that my Christmas menu is exactly the same year after year…and it is! By now, nine years into this blog, you’ve probably memorized that line-up yourself: Cranberry-Marinated Tenderloin, Curried Carrots with Pecans, Mashed Potatoes, and a blue-cheese-and-pine-nut studded pile of greens that has come to be known as “Sybil’s Salad.”
In case the blue cheese and pine nuts didn’t give it away, the menu was conceived in the 90s by my mother-in-law, Emily, and much of it was inspired by the magazines she was reading at the time — RIP Cooking Light — and from recipes swapped with her buddies in book club, hence Sybil’s Salad. Every year, we’d make the 5-hour drive down hellish 95-south to Northern Virginia a day or two before Christmas, pull into the driveway lined with string-lighted shrubbery; walk in the front door to Frank Sinatra crooning carols; open the refrigerator and see a 3-pound filet coiled like a snake in a wine-and-cranberry-juice filled Ziploc; then the freezer to find a ball of cookie dough that would later be shaped and frosted by the girls in ways that were delicious, and not the slightest bit instagram-worthy. You could set your watch to it. To all of it. And this is why we have rituals. They are our emotional touchstones, sensory reminders that allow us “our doorway into Christmas,” to quote Jeanette Winterson, even as everything surrounding them seems to be changing with dizzying velocity. The comfort I feel after crossing through that doorway is instant and practically physical. Add my kids to the equation, and me knowing they feel the same, and the gratitude I have for our traditions is immeasurable.
I don’t want to sugarcoat things too much here, though, because I know how rough the holidays can be — how inextricably linked with loss they are. For people dealing with aging parents or the deaths of friends and family, traditions might be comforting in their predictability, but also an exercise in painful emptiness, a way of simply going through the motions and hoping that eventually things will feel right again. It can be hard to know how to proceed. The other week, when I sat in front of the fire to address my 100-plus holiday cards, it felt like I was taking a kind of crass existential inventory — confirming the address of a college friend who moved to Pittsburgh, adding a neighbor I’ve always loved into the fold, removing the name of a woman’s husband of sixty years who died in June. (I use the word “removing” because “deleting” is horrendous and I moved his name to a separate part of the file.) I also had to remove my mom’s beloved 95-year-old sister, who died this past summer surrounded by family and was more at peace with death than most of us could ever hope to be. (Aunt Emily was fond of saying I think God forgot about me.)
Then I came upon Sybil, the namesake of that annual Christmas salad. Sybil died about a year ago from cancer, only a day after meeting and holding her first grandchild, and 2017’s holiday card was the last I’ll ever send her. She was one of my in-laws’ closest friends and one of my favorites. She hosted a bridal shower for me when I got engaged and made a point to come over with gifts for the girls any time we were in town visiting Andy’s parents. She was a world-class listener and friend, championing my career and books to anyone who would listen. This was especially true for the last book I wrote, How to Celebrate Everything, not only because she too loved the idea of infusing meaning into everyday, but because the recipe for Sybil’s Salad is printed right there on page 88 for posterity.
Anyway, that recipe is as good an excuse as any I’ll need to remember her, and many others, this holiday. I’ve made a few adjustments from the original — those pine nuts have been replaced with candied walnuts — but mostly it’s the same. Thank goodness.
This recipe is also in How to Celebrate Everything (page 88), along with the recipes for the rest of our annual feast. We pretty much only eat it on Christmas (no doubt adding to its appeal), but there’s no reason you shouldn’t eat it all year long. Besides being a very sentimental dish, it also happens to be delicious. (NOTE: I have edited this recipe to include pears, which should’ve never been omitted in the first place. Forgive me!)
1 bunch Boston or Bibb lettuce, rinsed and torn
1 bunch arugula, rinsed and torn
1 bunch sprouts or watercress
2 ripe pears, chopped into bite size pieces
1 cup candied walnuts (if you want to be faithful to the original, you can use toasted pine nuts instead)
1/2 cup chopped scallions, white and light green parts only (2 bunches)
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese (or more to taste)
1/2 cup good-quality olive oil
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, finely minced
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large bowl, combine all of the salad ingredients. In a small bowl, whisk together the ingredients for the dressing and toss. Sometimes I like to reserve a few sprouts, cheese, and nuts to distribute on top, post-toss, so not all of the good stuff sinks to the bottom.