Over a decade ago, my dad sat down to write out his memories. The resulting document sits in an pale green folder on my bookshelf now as one of my most treasured possessions. In it, he describes the cocoa paste sandwiches his mom packed for lunch each day, the novelty of the canned biscuits his Grandma made, and how his dad got laid off most winters from his construction job and resorted to hauling wood for meager pay.

Under a section called, simply, Vivi, he describes at the hot summer night at Gooch’s, a little soda shop in the tiny town of Piedmont, Missouri, where he drove up and saw my mother for the first time.

I saw a beautiful blond, tanned girl that I had not seen before. She was very pretty, and I caught her eye as soon as I drove in. After asking around, I found out she was Vivian Roberts and was in town visiting her cousins. I quickly asked her out . . . I knew I was in love, the moment I saw her.

Mom and Dad

It sounds like the beginning of a fairy tale, but my parents’ youth was harder than it should have been — especially for my mom. Daddy was poor, but mom was living a nightmare. Her dad was an abusive alcoholic. It wasn’t long after my parents’ first date that he took my mom and their family back to Kansas City. Dad describes the difficult time that followed:

We wrote letters to each other every day. I called her when it was possible. Kansas City was a good 6 hour drive from Piedmont. Viv was living in a rough situation and her dad treated her like dirt. It seemed like we would never be together. We both prayed for a solution.

The solution came in an unexpected way. My mom’s dad came home after drinking one night and beat her badly, tearing out fistfuls of hair. After getting a sobbing phone call from her, Daddy got in his Torino and made the 6 hour drive in 4 hours to pick her up and bring her back to Piedmont to live with her grandmother. Finally in the same city, Dad says, “I was in heaven. I could date Viv, and see her every night. I fell quickly and deeply in love with the girl I wanted to marry.” They were married shortly thereafter at the First Church of the Nazarene in Piedmont, my mother only 16 years old.

The third challenge in Project Food Blog, a competition to find the next food blog star, was to create a luxury dinner party. It just so happens that this challenge fell on my parents’ 39 year wedding anniversary. Thank you so much for voting in the first two challenges to get me to this point, where I had the privilege of creating a special meal to honor my parents’ marriage.

I wanted to take that night at Gooch’s soda shop and my parents’ memories from growing up in the 1960s and elevate them by creating luxury versions of several classic American dishes. My four course menu featured all-American favorites such as pizza, popcorn, nachos, burgers and fries, and of course, apple pie — fancied up, but still retaining their classic charm.

The amuse bouche truly amused my bouche — each component sung in the bite to produce a harmony that tasted exactly like a fresh Margherita pizza. The appetizers, though, were disappointing. Food blogs represent genuine, real people who are dancing through kitchen highs and lows along with their readers — so I’m not afraid to tell you when things don’t work out. My Saffron Buttered Popcorn only carried the lovely saffron flavor in certain bites and my nachos were dry. Nevertheless, we trekked on to the main course and were rewarded for our diligence!

Served in sweet diner trays (download the template here, print them on cardstock, cut, fold, and glue together. Adapted from Bakerella‘s smaller version), the “burgers and fries” were leagues above your standard diner fare.

The roast was perfectly cooked, juicy, and flavorful, and every accompaniment pulled its weight to make the sliders a true indulgence. I actually forgot the caramelized onions on my dinner party version (they were sitting in a container right behind me, too!), but remade the sliders that evening with them included just to taste. They were dynamite with and without the onions! The herb-salt roasted fingerling potatoes carried a hint of fresh lemon with every bite — delicious.

After a break for conversation, guests sat down to a fresh, light apple puff pastry tart. While everyone loved the tart, the consensus was that the star of dessert was the freshly whipped almond cream on top.

The food was good, the company was fabulous — but my favorite part of dinner was watching my parents read the quotes I had framed for them. A few days before the party, I’d asked each of them to tell me their favorite memory together, but to keep it a secret from each other. Imagine my surprise and delight (I’ll admit, there were a few happy tears) when they both emailed me the exact same memory.

Memories sent by mom and dad and framed for the party.

It was of a time when, according to Daddy, they were “so poor but so happy.” Mom was pregnant with my oldest sibling, Jason, and they lived above a hardware store next to some law offices. At night, after the lawyers had gone home, they would slide through the hallways in their stocking feet, laughing together. It’s a memory that, along with a love as strong as my Grandpa’s lumber-hauling hands and as sweet as my mom’s teenage smile, still unites them after 39 years.

Then and now.

Note: Voting for Round 3 is now open! Please log into your Foodbuzz.com account (or register if you don’t yet have one), go here, and click “Vote for this Entry.” Thank you!

Fancy Beef Sliders

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, with roast beef adapted from Simply Recipes and slider technique by Annie’s Eats
Yields: ~30 sliders

Roast Beef Ingredients:
3 to 3 1/2 lbs of Boneless Rump Roast (pick an end cut with a lot of fat marbling)
Olive oil
8 slivers of garlic
Salt and pepper

Slider Ingredients:
potato slider buns (or dinner rolls of your choice)
baby arugula
Swiss cheese, sliced
Gorgonzola cheese
2 sweet onions
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil for caramelizing onions
melted butter

Prepare the roast beef: Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Let roast sit out for an hour before cooking so that it begins at room temperature. When ready to begin, rinse the roast and use a sharp knife to cut 8 small incisions over the surface, inserting a sliver of garlic into each. Rub the roast with olive oil and season both sides with salt and pepper. Place roast in baking dish with lid (or you can use Elise’s on-the-rack method) and bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees.

After 30 minutes, turn heat down to 225 degrees F and continue cooking uncovered until a meat thermometer reads 140 degrees (Elise says this takes 2-3 hours, but for me, it was more like 1.5 hours. I was nervous that I might need to slow it down, but it came out perfect. So just keep an eye on it). Remove roast from the oven and tent with foil. Let rest at least 15 minutes before slicing into very thin slices. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees F at this point, in preparation for the sliders.

While the roast cooks, caramelize your onions. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. When it’s hot, add the onions and stir so that they all come into contact with the bottom of the pan. As they start to brown, stir them every 15-30 seconds. Add balsamic vinegar and stir. Continue to brown for 10-20 minutes until they’re well caramelized.

In the meantime, prepare slider assembly line. Set out baby arugula, Gorgonzola cheese, Swiss cheese, and mayonnaise. Set slider buns onto a baking sheet. On each bun, place roast beef and all the toppings, including caramelized onions. Brush tops of sliders with melted butter and bake at 400 degrees F for about 10 minutes, or until melty. Serve warm.

Sliders with caramelized onions added!

Tips for Creating a Special, Affordable Dinner Party:

  1. Pick a personal theme. Think of a special memory, book, or food — something that resonates with your guests of honor. Plan your party around that theme. In this case, Gooch’s soda shop was the foundation of my party plan.
  2. Get creative with your resources. I decorated my table with a curtain panel that was $3 cheaper than an actual tablecloth. A local dollar store provided fun popcorn containers and drinking glasses. I picked recipes with simple ingredients and used a few luxury items (saffron, Gorgonzola) to elevate them. I also created many party decorations out of paper.
  3. Plan ahead. A week before the party, I made a list of all groceries and planned out prep work for each day. I also wrote a detailed plan of party day, including what times to prep, bake, and photograph each dish.
  4. When possible, choose dishes that can be prepared ahead of time. I didn’t follow my own advice this time, but the beauty of many desserts and appetizers is that they can be prepared in advance and refrigerated until served. You’ll have more fun if there are only a few things to prepare at the last minute.

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130 Comments on Elevated Americana: A Celebration of 39 Years

  1. KeepItSweet
    October 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm (14 years ago)

    i’d love to be a guest at your dinner, everything looks delish!

  2. Brandie @ Home Cooking Memories
    October 3, 2010 at 4:31 pm (14 years ago)

    I love everything about your post and your dinner! So sweet. I can’t wait for voting to open up so I can give you another vote.

  3. Lori
    October 3, 2010 at 4:57 pm (14 years ago)

    Wow girl all this looks so amazing!!! The story about your parents though made me cry!! They look awesome then and now!!

  4. Meghan
    October 3, 2010 at 5:29 pm (14 years ago)

    Now that is a lovely story.

    And the food looks pretty fantastic, too 🙂

  5. Jamie
    October 3, 2010 at 6:50 pm (14 years ago)

    Omg their both sending you the same memory is too cute. Loves it. Table and food look fab!

  6. Joanne
    October 3, 2010 at 7:41 pm (14 years ago)

    This was such a lovely post with such a sweet story behind it! How serendipitous that this challenge fell on your parents’ anniversary. I love that you recreated good old American fare for them. It all sounds glorious.

  7. Otana
    October 3, 2010 at 7:50 pm (14 years ago)

    Sounds absolutely delicious, and the writeup was just beautiful. Congratulations to your parents, may they have many more happy years ahead of them!

  8. Wei-Wei
    October 3, 2010 at 8:29 pm (14 years ago)

    That is the sweetest thing. Your parents are lovely, and as always the food looks amazing!

  9. Megan
    October 3, 2010 at 8:45 pm (14 years ago)

    Your posts always make me teary-eyed. You are so honest and down to earth. I love the theme of your dinner. Your parents must have loved it too. The food photos are gorgeous, but the old photos of your parents added such a sentimental touch. Best of luck in this round, Julie!

  10. Betty @ scrambled hen fruit
    October 3, 2010 at 9:53 pm (14 years ago)

    Happy anniversary to your mom and dad! Your dinner for them sounds wonderful. 🙂 I love the look of those sliders!

  11. Maya
    October 3, 2010 at 10:35 pm (14 years ago)

    I love this anniversary party and the story behind your parents getting together. They look so sweet together, and you wrote the post too well that it got me all sentimental! Love your American classics too, I’ll be reserving a vote for you.

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      October 3, 2010 at 10:36 pm (14 years ago)

      Thank you SO much, Maya! Same back at you — can’t BELIEVE you served 50 guests! Now THAT is vote-worthy 😉

  12. Jun Belen
    October 3, 2010 at 10:56 pm (14 years ago)

    39 years? That’s a huge accomplishment! Congratulations to your parents! And congratulations to you for pulling off a wonderful dinner party! Well done!

  13. Cheryl@BlackGirlChefsWhites
    October 4, 2010 at 12:10 am (14 years ago)

    What an awesome story of love lost and reclaimed. And the burgers look pretty damn good too!

  14. Liren
    October 4, 2010 at 12:36 am (14 years ago)

    Julie, I am holding back tears! What a fitting way to celebrate 39 years of marriage 🙂

  15. Sarah
    October 4, 2010 at 2:58 am (14 years ago)

    What an awesome blog you’ve got here. A lovely and touching story of your parents, and the fabulous dinner party you threw them. Simply divine.

  16. Lisa
    October 4, 2010 at 9:18 am (14 years ago)

    Julie, This post is beautiful. You look just like your mother! I’m so excited to be voting for you!

  17. mary beth
    October 4, 2010 at 10:10 am (14 years ago)

    Your father’s wonderful line about being young and “so poor but so happy” reminded me of the line from Hemingway’s _A Moveable Feast_: “This is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” I’ve thought about that sentiment a lot lately, as part of a young couple who hopefully are as “poor” as we’ll ever be together right now, yet happier than I can imagine. It’s funny how it works that way.

    This post is amazing, every piece of it.

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      October 4, 2010 at 10:49 am (14 years ago)

      Thank you so much, Mary Beth <3 I almost wonder sometimes if the experience of being poor together galvanizes you into a fierce sort of happiness.

  18. Lawyer Loves Lunch
    October 4, 2010 at 10:39 am (14 years ago)

    What a lovely tribute to your parents! I love the decorations, especially the vintage Coke bottles. You’ve got my vote 🙂

  19. Julie M.
    October 4, 2010 at 11:11 am (14 years ago)

    Your mom looks just like she did in the original picture! It looks like it was a wonderful celebration with delicious food and fond memories. Good luck, I hope you move on!

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      October 4, 2010 at 11:33 am (14 years ago)

      Thank you so much! 🙂 By the way, a panini party is SO right up my alley! Just opened your post and can’t wait to read it!

  20. Suzy
    October 4, 2010 at 11:57 am (14 years ago)

    What a wonderful way to celebrate your parents’ anniversary! Sharing such touching memories and eating yummy fancy sliders! Congrats…you’ve got my vote again!

  21. kathdedon
    October 4, 2010 at 12:58 pm (14 years ago)

    This is such a thoughtful entry! A beautiful tribute to your parents. I love the “elevated Americana” theme. The sliders, especially, look fabulous!

  22. Lindsey @ Hot Polka Dot
    October 4, 2010 at 4:11 pm (14 years ago)

    What an amazing story and the party looks so fun! Those sliders are adorable! You have my vote!

  23. Savory Sweet Living
    October 4, 2010 at 4:18 pm (14 years ago)

    Thank you for sharing your parents’ story and allow us to be a part of the anniversary dinner. Great menu concept, creative and original. You got my vote. Good luck!

  24. girlichef
    October 4, 2010 at 5:00 pm (14 years ago)

    Darnit all for making me cry!! That was absolutely beautiful 🙂 Beautiful! Fabulous post.

  25. Crystal's Cozy Kitchen
    October 4, 2010 at 5:03 pm (14 years ago)

    What an amazing couple! I love your idea for the menu… I was almost crying reading the introduction.
    I voted for you again – Good Luck!

  26. Butter
    October 4, 2010 at 7:37 pm (14 years ago)

    You moved me to tears, what a beautiful story. I loved your dinner party idea, the favorite memories and framing the quotes. You have such a beautiful heart 🙂 Everything is just so touching. Thank you for sharing…wow. And of course I am voting on this post. Looks deeeeelish!
    (from Running On Butter)

  27. thejoyofcaking
    October 4, 2010 at 7:58 pm (14 years ago)

    Love your post Julie. Very personal touch. Your table, and food look great!! Best wishes….

  28. RhodeyGirl
    October 4, 2010 at 8:04 pm (14 years ago)

    Love! I teared up a bit, if I’m being honest.

    Just voted for you!

  29. themilkmanswife
    October 4, 2010 at 8:09 pm (14 years ago)

    Another beautiful post. I love the idea of american classics classed up a bit. You’ve got my vote yet again! 🙂

  30. Sandy
    October 4, 2010 at 8:17 pm (14 years ago)

    Very touching and whimsical too! What a nice tribute to their love..thank you so much for sharing and good luck ! Thanks for stopping by my blog I’m heading over to vote for you now !!

  31. Margaret Murphy Tripp
    October 4, 2010 at 8:22 pm (14 years ago)

    Your heartwarming intro really touched me…what a nice anniversary dinner for them. Thank you for sharing their story. (VOTE!)

  32. riceandwheat
    October 4, 2010 at 9:05 pm (14 years ago)

    What a lovely story about your parents and I love that you planned the menu and decor with their back story in mind. Everything about this whole post is so sweet – I love it! Good luck in PFB!

  33. Torviewtoronto
    October 4, 2010 at 9:50 pm (14 years ago)

    lovely presentation and celebration

  34. AJ
    October 4, 2010 at 10:02 pm (14 years ago)

    Loved your post!! Voting for you right now! 🙂

  35. Vivian
    October 4, 2010 at 11:00 pm (14 years ago)

    Yes, (this is Julie’s Mom) we DID love it! Everything was lovely and so delicious! My favorite was the dessert, or course, (as usual) but everything was not only great tasting but also presented uniquely! Many thanks to Julie for the nice dinner and all her planning and hard work.

    Our story is one for the books… We are blessed by God and know it! 🙂 Running on Butter (love that name!!) Julie does have a beautiful heart, and Mary Beth, I love that Hemingway line! So fitting! Thank you all for your lovely and thoughtful comments!!

    Oh, and yes, I DID vote for Julie! 🙂

  36. Sues
    October 5, 2010 at 12:21 am (14 years ago)

    This is definitely one of the sweetest, most meaningful posts I’ve seen. I’m big on picking a theme and sticking to it. And I just love that yours is so close to you 🙂 Awesome job!! One of my faves 🙂

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      October 5, 2010 at 12:26 am (14 years ago)

      Aw, thanks SO much, Sues 🙂 I’m clicking over to read your blog post right now!

  37. Kate @ Savour Fare
    October 5, 2010 at 12:40 am (14 years ago)

    What a sweet story! I love the pictures of your parents!

  38. cathy/ShowFoodChef
    October 5, 2010 at 4:14 am (14 years ago)

    Oh, I’ve been waiting to get over here and read your story just from your twitter. That was so beautiful and what a great way to do the theme. Loved it and you got mine! 😀

  39. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella
    October 5, 2010 at 8:42 am (14 years ago)

    I absolutely LOVED this story Julie! I’m so glad that your dad found your mum not only to save her but now we have you! 😀 best of luck with the competition-you’re a total winner to me!

  40. natalie (the sweets life)
    October 5, 2010 at 11:27 am (14 years ago)

    wow. what a wonderful story and such a special tribute to your parents! this is by far one of the best entries i’ve seen!

  41. fooddreamer
    October 5, 2010 at 11:48 am (14 years ago)

    Aw, dude, you made me cry! What a story and I think it’s wonderful how you recreated the meal from the place they met. Definitely getting a vote from me.

  42. Ben
    October 5, 2010 at 1:58 pm (14 years ago)

    Love that you were inspired by your parents’ marriage. Beautiful family, beautiful food.

  43. Reeni
    October 5, 2010 at 5:48 pm (14 years ago)

    I love the story behind your delicious dinner party! And how neat that they both sent you the same memory. It made me tear up. Good luck in this round!

  44. Daily Spud
    October 5, 2010 at 7:06 pm (14 years ago)

    I think you may have caused me to wipe away a tear or two – what a lovely way to honour your parents. I’ll be off to vote now 🙂

  45. Jessica
    October 6, 2010 at 12:42 am (14 years ago)

    Everything looks fabulous! Hope we both make it to the next round! 🙂 You have my vote!

  46. Becca
    October 6, 2010 at 1:59 am (14 years ago)

    Julie, I love the way you share the story behind the food, it’s what makes this food blog more than “just a food blog”. 🙂

  47. Ruby
    October 6, 2010 at 5:40 am (14 years ago)

    Beautiful story, moving tribute and I love that you were honest enough to include your mistakes! 🙂

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      October 6, 2010 at 6:52 am (14 years ago)

      Thanks, Ruby! I definitely feel like being a REAL person — mistakes and all — is an important part of food blogging!

  48. Sharlene (Wheels and Lollipops)
    October 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm (14 years ago)

    It’s funny in reading through all the posts I’ve seen several interpretations of luxury, and here to love and to be loved is really true luxury. What a lovely tribute to your parents. I’m now craving burgers 🙂

  49. Stay-At-Home-Chef
    October 6, 2010 at 5:10 pm (14 years ago)

    What a beautiful and personal post. Loved it! Good luck 🙂

  50. Food Lover
    October 6, 2010 at 5:47 pm (14 years ago)

    Your dishes look really yummy 🙂
    Thanks & good luck.

  51. ediblecville
    October 6, 2010 at 8:27 pm (14 years ago)

    OMG, I loved this. When my Dad turned 70, my sister and I did a similar theme for his birthday but as a Brunch. If she hadn’t been there to help, I would’ve been a mess! Cheers girl! You got my vote 😀 http://bit.ly/cNNCrR

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      October 6, 2010 at 8:31 pm (14 years ago)

      Thank you so much!!! I know what you mean about needing help — I could’ve used 8 more hands!

  52. Amy (Shiny Cooking)
    October 6, 2010 at 8:30 pm (14 years ago)

    I adore this theme, not to mention the anniversary and their story. You got my vote. 🙂

  53. Kelly Lenihan
    October 6, 2010 at 9:09 pm (14 years ago)

    What a sweet story, you have my vote. Can’t wait to recreate your sliders, yumm!

  54. Fiona at Life on Nanchang Lu
    October 6, 2010 at 9:33 pm (14 years ago)

    Julie – have been trying to view this post and comment on it for days, but around National Day in China (Oct 1) internet security always beefs up and I’ve been endlessly frustrated trying to get over, under or through The Great Firewall. Success finally today!
    Thanks for a lovely post – the first one to bring tears to my eyes….and the food immediately transports you back to the sixties.

  55. Danielle@Runs With Spatulas
    October 7, 2010 at 12:17 am (14 years ago)

    What a terrific story and what a way to help them celebrate it! Now, you know you will have to out do yourself next year. 🙂 Good luck in round 3!

  56. Anna
    October 7, 2010 at 1:30 am (14 years ago)

    I loved your party, great story. Everything looks amazing. Good luck in this round, you got my vote.

  57. Cristina, from Buenos Aires to Paris
    October 7, 2010 at 1:46 am (14 years ago)

    What an incredible family story ( even if some things are sad!) and your dinner is a GREAT idea…Pity I was not there!!

  58. Diana@Spain in Iowa
    October 7, 2010 at 12:10 pm (14 years ago)

    What a beautiful blog you have and such a touching story. I adore blogs that bring back family history through food. You’ve done a wonderful job on recreating such a special moment in time. Voting for sure!

  59. Jeanne
    October 7, 2010 at 12:42 pm (14 years ago)

    This is such a sweet story, and the perfect way to honor your parents’ marriage. Your adaptations of classic dishes are so creative! I’m voting for you right away!

  60. Monica H
    October 9, 2010 at 1:06 am (14 years ago)

    You are quite the popular blogger with this post!

    I love the party you threw for your parents. It’s upscale comfort at it’s best. great job Julie!

    Happy anniversary to your mom and dad.

  61. Maranda
    October 10, 2010 at 6:21 pm (14 years ago)

    Okay…1) this meal sounds amazingly delicious! You are awesome Julie and deserve to win this! 2) that is such a beautiful story about your parents. I’m sad it took me this long to read it. But better late than never right?? Happy anniversary to your wonderful parents!


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