You were dreading your big day –turning 40 — for months. Ever since you turned 39, really. The day loomed over you, big and foreboding, like a storm cloud. I was dreading the day too–not because I wasn’t looking forward to being married to a man in his 40’s (Ha! You’re older than me!), but because I felt like I owed you a big birthday debt because I blew it when you turned 30, and the sting of disappointment over that flop of a milestone birthday still bothers you. It bothers me too.
It’s been ten years, but I remember that evening clearly: I must have been putting groceries away because I was I crouched down low in front of the refrigerator, nestling lettuce and cucumbers into the crisper drawer when Christy reminded me we were supposed to take you out for dinner that night. What she ordinarily would have used as an excuse to get the two of us in the same room suddenly seemed like a big inconvenience. She was feeling just as pressed for time as I was that night. Her bridal shower was in the morning and the groceries I was struggling to put away were minor details compared to the long list of other things awaiting our attention in the next few hours. We went back and forth for a minute or two trying to figure out how to make good on our promise to take you out to celebrate your birthday, finish our to-do list, and get a little bit of sleep. Something had to give, and that night, it was you.
Was it Christy who called you or was it me? I don’t remember, to be honest. But I do remember how awful I felt about it the moment you hung up. You spent your 30th birthday alone because we flaked on you. Every so often you remind me how much it disappointed you, usually when you are giving me a hard time about how I am so dense that I didn’t even know our first date was, in fact, a date at all. But a week ago, your frustration over the circumstances surrounding this birthday erupted. The rainy weather, another round of coughs and congestion, our weekend getaway on the verge of falling through rattled you. “We have to do something, otherwise this birthday will be just like my 30th,” you said. Here we go again, you seemed to be saying, another big birthday left uncelebrated.
I felt it too–the weight this milestone put upon you. I wanted to make your 40th birthday awesome anyway, so awesome it would inspire you to forgive me for flaking on you all those years ago–but after you said that, the pressure was on. The problem is: my hands were tied. By the time I realized how much this day meant to you, there were only three days left, for crying out loud. Three days didn’t give me enough time to do much other than move ahead with my original plans for a low key birthday at home (which by then were feeling much more ho-hum than anything).
I trudged through the week, worried and stressed and failing miserably at the smallest of gestures I hoped would make your birthday week special–making your top five favorite meals each night of the week, culminating in Beef Stroganoff and Grandma Adeline’s kuchen on your big day. But the only meal I managed to tick off the list was Chopped Cheeseburger Salad–I was too busy fretting that the super awesome birthday present I ordered the week before wouldn’t make it here in time for your big day; wracking my brain to figure out how to make good on my promise of making your annual birthday dinner now that food allergies and intolerances complicate things around here; afraid you would be unhappy with the bill that came with even the most modest attempt at making your day special; and worrying that my best effort to make your birthday special still wouldn’t be enough to make you feel loved and important. It wasn’t a good week, admittedly, and my attitude was just as volatile as the weather patterns around here have been.
But there was a break in the clouds by the time your birthday rolled around, and the lingering guilt over this big debt I felt I owed you dissipated when I realized that small things done with big love aren’t really small at all. It also helped that you seemed genuinely happy all day. If there was any disappointment in your heart, you covered it well.
I imagine there must have been some disappointment. The gluten free, dairy free kuchen failed miserably. I didn’t get around to cooking the Beef Stroganoff until after the Goobies whispered their last “Happy birthday, Daddy!” as we tucked them into bed, and we weren’t quite over whatever bug we’d been fighting that week quite yet. Our weekend plans were cancelled, more rain came in–but that super awesome birthday present found its way to you on time. And you loved it.
As piddly as my gestures felt compared to the grand plans with which I wish I could have surprised you–these small things were done with great love. And that right there is the biggest difference between your 40th birthday and your 30th. Ten years ago, I didn’t love you yet. That we’re sorry we hurt your feelings birthday dinner we took you out for to celebrate your 30th birthday was a bigger party than your 40th birthday dinner, indeed. There were more people there, more food, more presents, more fun, and you spent the evening surrounded by people who loved you. This time around, there weren’t as many people around the dinner table, the food was only so-so, and the presents were small, too. But I showed up. The Goobies thrilled at throwing you a party. The food mattered to you. And the presents knocked your socks off. Most of all, this time, even the smallest, seemingly insignificant screamed how much I love you, because this time around, I do.
Chopped Cheeseburger Salad
Cheeseburger salads are everywhere–I get it. What makes this one stand out? Nothing much, I guess, except that Joey likes it better than any others he’s eaten at a restaurant, which of course makes my heart soar–but also, I totally agree. Many cheeseburger salads plop a lukewarm burger with plastic cheese on top of a pile of lettuce leaves and bun-sized slices of tomatoes, pickles, and onions, and serve thousand island dressing on the side. You end up having to chop the thing up yourself, making it feel like a lackluster bunless burger rather than a hearty, somewhat indulgent salad. At home, I chop the lettuce into bite sized pieces and pile them high with classic cheeseburger toppings: shredded sharp cheddar cheese (Daiya cheddar style shreds for Emery, if he’s around), ripe red tomatoes, chunks of dill pickles, and diced red or green onions if we feel like fussing around with them. Sometimes I get fancy and add some bacon or avocado, but we like the simplicity of this version best. Also–a note about the Pink Sauce. It’s really just Thousand Island Dressing like my mom always used to make, but we call it Pink Sauce because that’s what our girls call it. I use Trader Joe’s brand mayonnaise, ketchup and dill pickles in this recipe. Other varieties will work too, of course, but I’m devoted to these Trader Joe’s staples and way their flavors meld into the perfect thousand island dressing. If you don’t want to use all that pickle juice, swap some out and use plain white vinegar instead. The salad and dressing are naturally gluten free, but swap vegan cheese for the sharp cheddar (or leave it out altogether) to make it dairy free. THM friends, this is an S.
For the Salad
- 1 pound ground beef (plus salt, to taste)
- 2 romaine hearts, washed, dried and chopped into 1 1/2″ pieces or so
- 2 handfuls of grape tomatoes, chopped (or try 1/2 – 3/4 cup chopped Romas or beefsteaks)
- 1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
- dill pickles chopped, as few or as many as you prefer
- Red onions, chopped (go easy on them–start with 2 Tablespoons or so) or 4 sliced green onions or so
- Pink Sauce (as below)
For the Pink Sauce
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 3/4 cup ketchup
- 1/2 cup dill pickle juice (see note above)
- 2 Tablespoons Pyure Organic Stevia Blend (or other sweetener equivalent to 1/3 sugar, or clearly–just use sugar. 1/3 cup should do.)
- 1/2 cup diced dill pickles
First, brown the ground beef and season it with about 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Once the meat is cooked through (no more pink), drain it and set it aside to cool.
Next, work on the dressing. In a large jelly jar, measure the mayonnaise, ketchup and dill pickle juice and sweetner. Whisk until smooth. Toss in the diced pickles, give it another stir, and set aside (after tasting to make sure you like it, of course).
And now, on to the salad. Shred the cheese (if necessary) and set aside. Wash and dry the romaine lettuce. Next, chop it all up, along with the tomatoes and pickles, and toss it into a big bowl: first the lettuce, followed by the ground beef, then the shredded cheese, followed by the diced tomatoes, onions and dill pickles. Finally, swirl the dressing on top–about a 1/2 cup at first–and toss with tongs to coat. Add more dressing if it suits your taste to do so.
Pile high on plates, top with freshly ground black pepper and enjoy.