Saturday, September 6, 2008


I love my Scottish ancestry!

As a child I heard all the tales of the voyage from Scotland to America, ate the traditional food and desserts of Scotland, loved the brogue my grandparents spoke, and grew up around men playing the bagpipes, lots of singing, dancing, and men in kilts!

My grandfather, James Houston, immigrated to America in 1920, the year my mother was born, his youngest child and only daughter, Sarah. He set off with his cousin Hugh, both bakers, in search of the American Dream. After six years in San Francisco he was ready to go back to Scotland and wrote my grandmother (Mary Thompson Houston) to let her know. She wrote him right back and told him to stay there, we are on our way!! Somehow she packed up her four children and belongings and they set sail, leaving her twin sister and all the relatives behind.

My mother was six and her eldest brother Hugh was 14, Bill was 10 and James was 8. The story goes that they almost lost my mother along the way on the train ride across the United States. Some people had taken her to get her an ice cream and didn't get back in a timely way...they almost missed the train.
They lived on Potrero Hill in San Francisco before moving across the Bay to Oakland where my grandfather opened his own bakery on 35th Avenue. He had the bakery for years and years until he retired. The bakery is where my mother met my father. He liked his sweets and he liked the sweet thing behind the counter as well! They married and I was their first child.

Because my Grandpa didn't drive, my mother would take me and we would go get him everyday and bring him back to his house. I was a tiny little anemic thing so all the bakers were always trying to fatten me up by giving me a chocolate eclair every single day...oh thank you for those early onset of fat cells!

My Dad went off to France during WWII and we lived with my grandparents from the time I was 18 months old until I was three, when he returned. His worst injury was being bitten by a rat (YIKES) and we were grateful he was home safe and sound. My childhood album was done by him, which I just treasure. It was the old black photo album paper and he wrote in white ink. I digress. It was later in life that I realized how cool that really was for a dad in the 40s! I also heard he made my mother sit by the radio and listen to music so I would have a love for music (which I do) and I don't think that really became 'popular' until the 70s!

While my mother and I lived with my grandparents, she went to work every day at Edy's which is Dryer's Ice Cream. She wore a big black bow in her red hair as part of the uniform. I just had a charmed life with my grandparents as my other cousins lived over in San Francisco and I became the favorite! Well my cousin Richard lived in Oakland also but he wasn't about to become a favorite...boy that he was. My grandfather was 'thrifty' as they call it and the lights in the house were not turned on until the street lights outside went on. Those lights outside were also my signal that soon my mother would be walking up the street, coming home from her ice cream duties.

After my dad got back from France he rented a house one block away from my grandparents and there was a wide alley-like place but not dark and dingy like I think of alleys was a cement pathway with grass on either side for passage from my grandparents house to my own new house. I traversed it quite often. I spent lots of overnight visits at my grandparents also which were very fun. In their kitchen they had a kelly table ... you've heard of kelly beds..dropping out of the wall, well their kitchen table did that and then folded back up and doors closed and a nice size kitchen was still there. Late at night they always had tea and scones with jam...but it was too much trouble to take that table down so they pulled out the breadboard and my grandmother covered it with a nice tablecloth and we sat around it and ate our treat and drank our tea. My grandmother, a nice Presbyterian real christian woman, read my tea leaves for fun every night.

We did eat some odd things when I think about it: Tripe, Finnan Haddie (Finnan haddie \Fin"nan had"die\ [See Haddock.] Haddock cured in peat smoke, originally at Findon (pron.f[i^]n"an), Scotland. the name is also applied to other kinds of smoked haddock. [Written also finnan haddock.] They baked that with tons of butter and it was really good, but I don't ever see that in a fish market anymore. We also ate 'mince and potatoes' which was nothing more than hamburger sauteed with onions, add water, cook and serve over mashed potatoes. I loved the Scotch Broth soup,and espeically the meat pies.

Desserts were much more appealing to me though! Besides those eclairs every day, they made batches of shortbread and also tablet, which is is a fudge like candy. Here's the traditional recipe:

Ingredients (for 4 pounds/1.8kg tablet): Butter or margarine - half pound (225g) Sweetened condensed milk - one pound (450g) Castor sugar - 4 pounds (1.8kg) Water - 1 pint (half litre)Method Using a non-stick pan, put the water on a low heat and melt in the butter. Add the sugar and bring to the boil. It is important to keep stirring all the time. Once it is boiling, stir in the condensed milk and simmer for 20 minutes. Again, keep stirring to avoid it sticking/burning. Take off the heat and beat vigorously for five minutes, adding the flavouring of your choice. Pour into a rectangular greased tin and once it is partly cooled, cut into bars (roughly 5 inches long by 1/2 inches wide). Once the tablet is cold, wrap the bars in waxed paper and store in an airtight jar or tin.
EVEN I HAVE MADE THIS AND IT TURNS OUT FINE..castor sugar ... just use superfine sugar.

I can't give you my grandfathers shortbread recipe though,its different than the thousands I have read on line...he had an ingredient that made it special. At Christmas time he would make so many and then wrap them and give them as gifts. My uncle James became a baker and he too continued that tradition. My cousin has the original mold which had a pattern with the thistle image on it. They were about 5 inches across and wonderful. I have also made this shortbread and it turned out just like his! I would love to take it to market someday, but the rules for baking at home are many, far too many; who can afford an industrial kitchen?

Lastly, I want to share my most favorite memory of all. New Year's Day at my Grandparents. First of all, all hustle and bustle of getting ready for New Years...many people would attend...tables and chairs everywhere for everyone. Furniture pushed aside and don't get in the way of anyone!

All my aunts and uncles and cousins were there. Also invited were all the people from Scotland they knew in the area. One lady brought us a Hershey bar every year. It was just a fun-filled delightful day with at least 50 people all laughing and visiting and eating. It did get a bit confusing as a child because many of the men were named Hugh. So many in fact they were categorized and referred to this way: Our Hugh, your Hugh, Wee Hugh, Little Hugh, Big Hugh, etc. LOL We all played bingo and there were prizes of money!

Then the big dinner...but the best part ever was after dinner.... all the lights would go down....there was a swinging door from the kitchen into the living room and dining room....and that door would swing open and my grandmother would have what they called YULE FIGGY PUDDING and it was on FIRE! (bit of rum) then it would burn off and the lights would go back on (All so exciting for we youngkids) and oh yummy the dessert! That just topped off the entire fun day of festivities. Every year this wonderful tradition.

I am blessed to have my memories.

I shall leave you with a couple of Scottish proverbs:
“Never marry for money. You'll borrow it cheaper.”
“Money is flat and meant to be piled up.”
“May God bless you to live as long as you want to; and want to as long as you live!


Janeen said...

Those are lovely memories Karen! Thank you for sharing them! I hope you have all these lovely memories written down or print this out for safe keeping for the grandkids. Are you still enjoying your blog?

Lori Stilger said...

Wow, Karen! LOTS of great memories. I'd love to try that shortbread!!! :)
There's a county here that's getting ready to put up a commercial kitchen for public use, for people like YOU who want to start their own businesses but can't afford the required accomodations. Intriguing, no??? :)
Love ya!!!!!!!!!!!!

karen said...

If I'm ever settled in a place before Christmas I'll make some shortbread and send it to you and your family.

Well thats a terrific idea re commercial kitchen. Very smart.
love you too