Storytelling has always been a welcome occurrence in my life. I am not talking about books or movies or television but rather verbally transferring experiences from one soul to another. Since I was a child I would happily listen to the stories my older family members would share. Tales about colorful family members and strange events, of challenges faced and crises experienced. There’s no way to tell how much of those tales was embellishment, but it doesn’t really matter. The telling itself was real and that is enough.
When I was thirteen we moved from our home on the beach to a small mountain town tucked high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Total population was less than two thousand in a town ten streets long and twelve streets wide. The next nearest municipality of any size was twenty miles away. It was there in that tiny mountain village that I would meet an unusual and wonderful person.
Being new and from the ‘flatlands’, life took some adjusting. The forest was pristine, a quarter mile from my home in the center of town awaited wilderness of pines, nameless streams and steep valleys. Many a weekend was spent wandering those woods looking for Bigfoot. Summer days were for wandering, because winter was a time you stayed near home. At a mile above sea level snow is no joke. I had never seen snow before I moved there and the very first storm dropped thirty six inches between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. The local kids laughed at my amazement and warned me winter was just getting started. They weren’t jesting; accumulations grew until the top of the snow bank was even with the bottom of my sister’s bedroom window—on the second floor!
I learned to love snow. Sledding is still one of my all time favorite pastimes. As much as I loved flying down a snow slick street that was not the main reason for my youthful love of snow, it was the money it brought me. With so much snow, people quickly weary of shoveling and are more than eager to pay an intrepid young businessman five dollars for a neat job clearing their walkways and driveway. Five dollars was a king’s ransom in those halcyon times. A forty dollar day was not impossible. To this day I still enjoy shoveling snow.
One of my clients was an elderly Scottish man who lived across the street from us. His name was Al Smith. He was a proper Gaelic gentleman, rail thin with a proud aquiline nose beneath a bushy, beetling brow and in looking back was around seventy five years old. He possessed those singular type eyes that are watery grey yet sparkle with vitality and wit. Ever appropriate, Mr. Smith was the very definition of gentility. He lived alone in an immaculate four bedroom Victoria and drove a green Cadillac Fleetwood. I met him during my first winter when I knocked on his door after a heavy snowfall. I offered to shovel his paths and driveway and he accepted, but only after insisting that for such a princely sum I was to deliver a neat and tidy job of it. “Unlike the slipshod mess those other rascals leave.” I agreed and he shut his door while I went to work.
Mr. Smith got his money’s worth, straight edges and all stray clumps of snow swept away. When I was finished he put on his galoshes and a great coat and came out to personally inspect my work. He nodded and headed to his back door, asking me to step inside his kitchen. I carefully kicked the snow from my boots and followed.
His kitchen was amazing, there were pots and pans and implements I had never seen before. What stood out the most was the smell, an aroma so rich and warm I was certain it was the fragrance of heaven. I couldn’t resist and as Mr. Smith was taking a five dollar bill from his wallet I had to ask what smelled so good.
“What’s that?” I had never heard of shortbread.
The normally reserved Mr. Smith was shocked by the question. His eyes narrowed as he divined whether my query was sincere or a low trick. He had a soft burr when he spoke, “Do you mean to tell me that you have never had shortbread before?”
“Well then, you are about to be educated.” He gestured to the table, “Please have a seat.”
There I was, a thirteen year old boy alone in a kitchen with a man I barely knew. Instead feeling wary or worried, I was curious. Mr. Smith was not a complete stranger. He had talked to my mom on several occasions. Then again, everyone talked to my mom; or rather was ‘talked at’ by my mom who is an incurable chatterbox. Listening to her tell my stepfather about him, I knew Mr. Smith had moved to the mountains from Los Angeles, that he was from Scotland originally and was well-off. I also knew she thought him a perfect gentleman. Also, there was something about him that struck me, something lonely and sad beneath the courtesy and gracious smiles. Never once did I ever think or feel anything negative around him, he was simply a polite old gentleman. So I sat at the table.
Mr. Smith made me a cup of hot cocoa and a plate with three thin golden rectangular slabs that sure looked like—“Cookies!”
“Where I come from we call them biscuits, but yes, those are shortbread ‘cookies’.”
He sat across from me with his own cup of cocoa and plate of shortbread. I watched him take a bite and immediately followed suit. Oh it was bliss. Crispy, flakey buttery warmth filled my consciousness. That was what perfection tasted like. I think I moaned. Mr. Smith certainly beamed at me with a look of pride, “You like my shortbread.”
I nodded vigorously and devoured my cookies as fast as I dared without looking like a starved monkey. As I chewed on the last delicious bite Mr. Smith made me an offer. “If you agree to come over as soon as the snow stops falling and do as good of a job as you did today, I will pay you $5.00 and make you shortbread and hot cocoa.”
It was the best deal I have ever made in my life. It snowed a LOT that year and the next. I spent hours in that kitchen, sharing shortbread and hot cocoa with Mr. Smith during which I asked him about Scotland.
He told me of his life. How he had grown up with a love of cooking, especially baking. How the Great War broke out when he was my age. He told me how at fifteen he lied about his age and joined the army where he met his best friend, Shortie.
They met when assigned to a foxhole at an intersection of roads in a forest called the Somme. It was just the two of them and a corporal who was maybe only a year older than they were. They had a Lewis gun and were supposed to ambush any ‘jerries’ that approached the crossroads. Day and night they took turns at the machine gun, scanning for any activity and seeing none. During those long hours a lifelong friendship was forged.
Finally it happened. It was a few hours before dawn when the jerries came. It began with the barrage, an insane neverending thunder of explosions. Then the quiet. When the corporal dared to peak out from behind their camouflaged nest, he immediately sank back down like he had seen a ghost.
The jerries were ‘everywhere’ in the woods around them, moving fast. I remember the look in Mr. Smith’s eyes when he told me how the pale faced corporal motioned Mr. Smith and Shortie to lay low and stay silent. I still get a chill when I recall his description of hearing German orders being quietly called out as the soldiers filtered past their foxhole and how muted his voice became when he described the sound of tanks passing by on the road. The trio lay huddled in the bottom of that pit all morning and afternoon, expecting to be discovered and shot at any minute. An eternity passed until the night fell again they snuck back to their line. It was the beginning of the 1918 Spring Offensive. The German line had swept right past their position. Had they opened fire they would been annihilated.
After the war, Mr. Smith and Shortie returned to Scotland where they opened a very successful bakery. It was obvious that Mr. Smith was extremely fond of Shortie by the anecdotes he shared about their life together as the very best of friends. One time I told Mr. Smith that I wished I could have met Shortie. A bittersweet smile appeared on his face and he said, “You would have liked him and he would have liked you.”
Years later Shortie died and a very heartbroken Mr. Smith couldn’t bear to remain in Scotland. That is when he came to America. He lived in Los Angeles for a long time before he found his way to our tiny town in the mountains. I asked him why he chose to move to such a remote and isolated place and he said in a near whisper, “It was a mistake.”
Mr. Smith and I spent a lot of time together, even when it wasn’t snowing. I loved helping him go shopping at the supermarket. He told me about spices and taught me some baking tricks. But he never taught me his recipe for shortbread. He never told me why, but I suspected it had something to do with Shortie.
Al Smith was my first ‘grown-up’ friend, someone who treated me with respect and dignity as if I were a peer and not an eighth grader. He taught me some of the finer things in life. For example, he invited my family over for a seven course meal. A banquet he prepared all by himself, refusing my help. The next day he asked me about what I observed and explained the importance of manners and etiquette. That I know how to lay out a full setting of silverware is thanks to Al Smith.
Then we moved away. Just like that. Saying goodbye to my Scottish friend was hard. He told me, don’t write because eventually the letters would fade away and he didn’t want to “go through that again.” Instead he said it was best to appreciate the time we had together and part with a fond farewell and exchanges of best wishes.
I never heard from Al Smith again. I did hear that he moved back to Los Angeles shortly after we moved away and that he died a few years after that. But I have never forgotten those kitchen chats or that shortbread.
For years after we went our separate ways, I sought to find Mr. Smith’s recipe for Scottish shortbread. For such a simple food there are so many variations, some better than others. I have tried dozens if not over a hundred with none quiet capturing the heaven I experienced so many years ago. About a decade ago, after yet another recipe missed the mark, epiphany struck. Maybe the reason that Mr. Smith refused to give me his recipe was that I needed to find my own. And so I began experimenting, more sugar, less sugar, rice flour, adding an egg, you name it, I probably tried it.
Finally I developed a recipe that I am proud to call my own. I won’t call it a Scottish shortbread because according to tradition a true Scottish recipe for shortbread contains only three ingredients—Sugar, butter and flour. However, I know that Mr. Smith also used vanilla and one other mystery ingredient in his recipe. I still haven’t replicated the golden delight from oh so long ago, but I am confident that these biscuits would have earned a nod of approval from Mr. Smith.