A couple of weeks ago, back when we proposed this guest post contest, I made reference to the fact that writing — for most of us, at least — is hard. It takes time, of which most of us do not have an abundance. It takes an idea, which is the most elusive thing of all, the thing you try to write your way toward, only to realize — 500 words in — that it’s not so much of an idea at all. But, more than anything, it takes guts. Writing something and sending it to someone else is a lot like taking your clothes off and walking down the street — maybe not the most apt metaphor for a family blog, but I really believe it to be true. All of which is to say, Jenny and I weren’t sure what we were going to get when we proposed the contest. We knew it was a lot to ask and, if the shoe were on the other foot, we would probably not have taken the time, or mustered the nerve, to try. Would anyone submit anything? Would we have much to choose from? And the answer to both of those questions is: yes. We received over 40 entries, with recipes and photos, and every one of them was full of feeling and heart. So many good recipes, so many personal stories and careful turns of phrase. I want to list of a few of my favorites. Janet: “Also, I am all about quinoa.” Kathryn: “Margaret’s new skirt is missing a button, and if you give them hem the gentlest tug, it is likely to slip right down off her hips.” Lisa: “So far, my son has proved to be a man of diverse tastes.” Marcus: “You can’t throw around a term like ‘Texas Chili’ lightly.” Sarah: “My mother had an unexplainable penchant for pickled beets.” Tara: “The son of an Irish longshoreman, Dad grew up on simple, inexpensive fare. He made beef stew with a thick, flavorful broth and big wedges of floury-textured potato that I’m still trying to recreate.” Courtney: “I knew this was something I had to try, and hopefully my confidence in the kitchen would outshine any hesitation I have when it comes to my writing. But I have planned and made dinner for my family every night of the week for eight years and there is something to be said for that. So, let’s do this.”
You all did this, and we can’t thank you enough. Jenny compiled all the entries in a downloadable pdf — a mini-cookbook from the readers of DALS. And Molly, I can’t wait to try the sweet potato-and-chard gratin.
And now… [doing my best game show host voice]… the envelope please…
The winner of the Dinner: A Love Story Guest Post Contest is [dramatic pause]…..
…Hannah Heller from Inherit the Spoon!
I miss my mom every day. Every day. I wish I could call her, or stop by and see her at her office, or email her a photo from my phone. Little things. Mostly, they make me smile – I miss her, but I love her, and she would have loved my kids. But then on some days I catch a glimpse of the full scope of the loss – my Uncle Lance, who has lost both his parents, described it once as having the universe kind of opening up over your head, with nothing there to buffer you. You are exposed. And the chasm that yawns above you sometimes feels like it holds the entire world – family history, your own childhood stories, a parent’s unconditional love, a grandmother for your kids.
But then you remember something small – something like how much your mom loved lemon verbena. And it feels real and visceral and you can hear her voice — it is in your head of course, but you know just the inflection, the absolute exact way it would sound when she said smell this and smooshed it in her fingers. Or maybe you remember how, that last summer, when she couldn’t really eat anymore but she would still try, she asked you one warm Wednesday evening to go and pick up butternut squash ravioli in brown butter and sage sauce – from that place on College, the ones that were almost more dessert than dinner. And she managed a bite or two and you finished hers, and then threw yours away because you hadn’t been able to resist ordering two full meals, just in case.
You remember those things and then suddenly it is easier, and you can imagine how, if her grandkids had made her a card for Mother’s Day, she would have loved it. You can picture her face lighting up, her laughter, her sparkly green eyes. And you know she would have kept those cards her grandkids made – on her dresser, by her bed, and eventually in a box. You know this because you sorted through years and years of her files and found them – swirled in with receipts and letters, manifestos and prayers. Card after card after handmade card. I love you mom.
Lemon Verbena Shortbread
These recipes started life as Michael Ruhlman’s most basic cookie ratio in his instructive if dense book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. The original recipe makes a lovely, not-too-sweet shortbread style cookie. I have made it even less sweet, and then upped the flavor profile with the addition of herbs. It is a subtle cookie – what he perfectly describes as an “adult cookie” – and like all good shortbread it leans heavily on the butter flavor (use really good butter! Maybe even make your own). This makes a lot of cookies — 25+. But they are very small, and they will go very quickly.
8 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons sugar
15 or more lemon verbena leaves, chopped fine
1/2 cup all purpose flour (plus 2 tablespoons if needed)
1/2 cup spelt flour
Optional: additional sugar for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 350°F and line two baking sheets with parchment.
In a standing mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until lightened and fluffy. Add the lemon verbena and mix until it is blended in. Add the both flours (not the extra tablespoons of all-purpose) and mix well until a dough forms. You should be able to form this into neat balls – if it is very sticky, add another tablespoon or two of flour.
Make small (teaspoons of dough) balls and flatten slightly on the cookie sheets. If you’d like, you can give them a little sugar dusting. Put the cookie sheets in the fridge, and let the shaped dough chill for a few minutes.
Bake for eight to ten minutes or until the bottoms are golden and the edges just barely turning. Cool on racks.
When you can taste the cookie just by reading the recipe, it’s a hit. When you can feel the love and memories, it’s a homerun. Lovely.
I didn’t have the pleasure of reading the other 39 entries but I can say with certainty that you made the right choice. WOW. Thanks to Hannah for a moving, emotional and evocative memory of her mom … which feels like it could’ve been *my* mom and *my* memories. I’m tearing up over my raisin bran.
Any chance Jenny will share the PDF of the other submissions?
This just made me tear up at my desk. Thanks for the lovely post and the delicious sounding recipe–I don’t have lemon verbena in my herb garden but may try it with rosemary.
JBS: The PDF of the other entries should be hyperlinked in Andy’s portion of the post where it says “a mini cookbook.” Is that not coming through for you? Oh no. You must read them!
Gah! He did. I was so breathless with anticipation for the winner, I glazed right past it. Thanks and sorry.
This is so beautiful!! All I did was dedicate my city planning thesis to my dad, which didn’t make anyone cry, except maybe my advisors.
Also, the download doesn’t work for me either.
Well, as I dry my tears, I am adding spelt flour to my grocery list & noting that I need to see if my sister has lemon verbena growing in her herb garden. The recipe sounds heavenly & the writing is beautiful. Thank you.
Wow – congrats to Hannah. What a beautiful entry, well done!!
Also – is it weird that I literally squealed outloud in my office to have been quoted on your blog? This made my day. Thank you, thank you!
WOW great post and the recipe looks wonderful.
What a well deserved win! I got a lump in my throat just reading it and I called my mom to say how much I love her. I can’t wait to read the rest of the submissions at home tonight!
Astonishingly simple, both the memories and the recipe, that open up astonishingly deep experiences. Hannah, your mother could know no sweeter love than yours for her. What an amazing daughter you are, and as is clear in your blog, what an amazing mother and cook you are! Thank you for being…. and for sharing with all the rest of us….
Such a sweet story! The cookies sounds amazing, as well!
So lovely! And I can’t wait to try to the cookies. Lemon verbena is a favorite of mine, too. I’ve been smelling it all day since a bar of soap with the same scent lives in my top drawer next to my t-shirts. A rather sweet coincidence, to be reading about it and smelling it at the same time.
And thanks for sharing all the entries. What a nice gift to your readers!
So beautiful. Should come with a warning that sudden tearing of the eyes may occur.
This post was so lovely. I lost my mom recently. Like Hannah, I lost my mom at a relatively young age. It can be such a lonely experience, but it really is the everyday things — and oftentimes food — that keep the memories of our loved ones with us. Thank you for this post.
Wow. A worthy pick, for sure. My goodness, that was beautiful.
And thanks, Jenny and Andy, for doing this and putting together a book, to boot! When do you sleep?
That was beautiful! As I was reading, those surprise tears dropped down from my eyes and I was so touched. Something about it truly conveyed what it would feel like to lose MY mom and it just moved me. Wonderful pick! I look forward to reading the others
Congratulations, Hannah! What a touching post and beautiful picture.
How beautiful! Made me cry.
I am so impressed. First, with the lovely, lovely winning post and recipe. And second–what a total class act putting together the PDF for your readers.
I’m so touched by all the responses here. And – what a great mini cookbook. Thank you Andy and Jenny – and thank you to all the writers for their stories and recipes. I’m floored.
so lovely that I am glad my name was not the one in the envelope! thanks so much for opening this up to all of us out here, and for the party favor of the .pdf book! It’s a fantastic collection–I’m not sure what to cook first!
Love the winning entry!
I would love to read the other stories, but the link to the .pdf will not work for me!
Thank you. That was so moving and beautiful.
Cat Wahl – I just had to tell you how WONDERFUL your blog is!!! I’ve been on it for omg well, waaaaayyyy past bemtide lets say in complete awe & love of your work!!! I follow you on facebook too, and if there’s ever a chance, I would LOVE to spend some time with you about your work. It’s so nice to see local photographers all come together in support of each other around here (not a photographer, just a hobby for me!) Anyways, love your work and recommend you all the time. Bye for now!