“This applause of the ‘rebel’ air in a Northern city does puzzle a little; but it is not insolvable. The war with Spain, many years’ generous mint and watermelon crops, a few long-shot winners at the New Orleans race-track, and the brilliant banquets given by the Indiana and Kansas citizens who compose the North Carolina Society have made the South rather a ‘fad’ in Manhattan. Your manicure will lisp softly that your left forefinger reminds her so much of a gentleman’s in Richmond, Va. Oh, certainly; but many a lady has to work now–the war, you know.”
- O. Henry, “A Cosmopolite in a Café”
William Sydney Porter (1862 – 1910) began writing short stories for publication while serving time in a federal penitentiary. Born and raised in North Carolina, Porter moved to Texas after earning his pharmacy license: he believed the state’s dry climate would protect him from illness, particularly the pneumonia that had claimed his mother’s life. In Texas, he worked as a bank teller and founded a short story magazine called The Rolling Stone. The magazine failed in less than a year, and Porter fled to Honduras after shortages found in the accounts he managed led to an official charge of embezzlement. He returned to the United States after receiving news of his wife’s terminal illness and was swiftly sentenced to five years in a Ohio penitentiary. In prison, he worked as the jail pharmacist and started writing short stories to submit to popular magazines. He developed a habit of using pseudonyms – “O. Henry” signed his most successful pieces – and routed his works to publishers through friends out of a desire to conceal his past. However, the location of Porter’s stories is undoubtedly influenced by his own life: his settings rarely deviate away from the American South, the West, Central America (Porter coined the phrase “banana republic”), prison, and New York City.
After Porter was released from jail in 1901 (two years early on account of good behavior), he moved to New York City. He resided in some of the city’s most infamous literary haunts – including the Chelsea, Marty, and Caledonia hotels – and would sit in restaurants and lobbies for hours, talking to people, observing their interactions, and jotting down fictional stories about them in his notebooks. These observations and informal interviews greatly inspired Porter: his stories almost always focus on the lives of everyday people and seek to magnify exceptional moments in life. Brief in length and conversational in tone, his pieces often rely on moments of coincidence and invariably end with a surprise twist (this type of conclusion is still referred to as the “O. Henry ending,” a reflection of his success with the formula). The year 1906 saw the publication of stories like “A Cosmopolite in a Café” in his second full collection, The Four Million, a title that refers to the population of New York City at the turn of the century. The collection starts, “not very long ago some one invented the assertion that there were only ‘Four Hundred’ people in New York City who were really worth noticing.” But Porter, like the census taker he goes on to describe, believed that every citizen counts. Every citizen has a story worth telling.
I decided to take a bit of Southern inspiration from O. Henry’s mint reference and throw some lime into the mix: this shortbread recipe is one rum shot short of requiring a reference to Mojitos. Shortbread cookies (often called “biscuits”) contain no leavening agent and usually consist of one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour. The term “short” refers to an old English term for the crumbly texture you find with most shortbread. These lime mint shortbread cookies are good in a “serve with Earl Grey on a drizzly Tuesday morning” kind of way but aren’t rich enough to satisfy your sweet tooth’s most gnawing cravings. These cookies are light, buttery, and lime-y, with just enough mint flavoring to cut the tartness from the citrus: they might not seem extraordinary, but they truly are worthy of notice.