Featured Story

Henry Smith’s Seasonings

By Peter J. Barbour

The first time I met Henry Smith was outside an old factory in the summer of 1965, right before I entered my senior year of high school. I was there because Hap Phillips, our baseball team’s coach, had offered me a job helping a client of his move into a new location.  I think Coach Phillips was taking pity on me. He’d probably noticed I wasn’t playing with much enthusiasm, even when I made a good play.

I was too worried about my future to enjoy almost anything, even sports. My sister, mother, and I occupied a small apartment, and we didn’t have much money. Whatever happened after my senior year of high school would be a huge transition for me. From the perspective of the summer of ‘65, graduation seemed like the end of the road, not the beginning. Without resources, university seemed like a reach, and the alternative was the draft and Viet Nam. Work could provide money for college applications, and I didn’t mind the prospect of lifting and toting things. Being productive was better than sitting at home or hanging out somewhere.

I’ve never liked public transportation, and I had to take the P&W trolley, a brief walk from our apartment on Manoa road, to get to the job. The trolley took me to the 69th Street terminal, and then I had to switch to the Media line to get to where I was going to work.  It took about forty minutes as long as the connections were good. That was always a source of anxiety for me. What if the trains were slow, or I got on the wrong train and ended up on the other side of town?

 The building Henry Smith was moving into was a short stroll from the trolley stop. He was at the front door when I arrived. 

“You the boy Hap sent me?” Mr. Smith said.

“Yes, sir.  My name is Joe,” I replied. 

“I can pay you, $1.50 an hour. I need help setting up the shop.  A van will be here soon.  Can you unload it?” 

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me sir. This isn’t the military. Just call me Henry,” he said and smiled.

That’s how we started.  He was a tall man, probably six feet; I’d guess taller when he was younger. He stood hunched-over, leaning on his cane, and wore a fedora and a long coat even though it was summer. His stomach stretched his white shirt to the limits of its buttons, and his tie fell well short of his belt, which was pulled up above his waist. He looked tired. The deeply creased lines on his cheeks extended to his jaw and framed his jowls. It wasn’t clear where his chin ended, and his neck began. He had kind, bright eyes, bushy brows, and thin, white hair that stuck out from under his hat.

“Come inside,” he said. “Let me show you around before the van gets here. I think you’ll find this place interesting.”

He gave me the key and asked me to unlock the door. I did as he said and held the door as he pulled himself up the steps with the rail, using his cane to maintain his balance. 

“Damn neuropathy,” he muttered. 

Once inside, he asked me to locate the light switch and turn it on, even though the interior was quite bright. The room was huge, two or more stories high. The sun’s rays streamed through large windows that lined three sides. There was a loft for storage over the entrance, and a raised platform opposite. On either end of the platform, stairs led to balconies spanning the length of the room on both sides and connected to the loft.

“This was an old cigar factory, vacant for years. The foreman sat there.” Henry pointed to the raised area, that looked like a dais, at the end of the room. “That way the boss man could see all the workers and make sure they were doing what they were supposed to be doing.”

Is he going to be sitting up there watching me? 

“Don’t worry. I won’t sit up there and watch you,” he said as if he’d read my mind. “We better get back outside and wait for that van. When it comes, it’ll be full of barrels. You’re going to have to unload them and set them up in here. Now, help me to the door and down the steps.”

That’s when I realized he really couldn’t see.

“Damn diabetes is taking my sight,” he murmured.

We sat on the steps in front of the building waiting for the moving truck.

“So,” Henry began. “It’s your last year of high school, isn’t it? Do you have plans?”

“Yes, I’ll be a senior in September.” My heart sped up and I had a sinking feeling in my gut. “I’m not sure where I’m going. I’d like to go to college, but I have to get in somewhere. If not, then, I guess I’ll go to Viet Nam.” I thrust my hands into my pockets and looked away.

“Go to college,” he said with stern conviction.

Mercifully, the van arrived at that moment, giving Henry no chance to pose further inquiries about my future. He had the driver back the truck up to the entrance, then open the rear doors, and place a couple of boards from the van bed through the doorway, so I wouldn’t have to constantly go up and down the steps.

“Okay, Joe,” Henry said, “the truck contains barrels filled with spices. You are going to unload them into this room and put them into neat rows. I’m not sure how I’d like them arranged yet; not certain they need to be organized. Most are fine powders. Try not to spill any.  It’d be a mess.” 

Henry must have spotted a chair in the corner of the room. His cane clicked on the cement floor as he toddled his way to it and sat down. I entered the van and started to move the barrels.

Illustration by the author

Fortunately, I had access to a hand truck. The drums were three to four feet high and held forty to fifty pounds of spice. Not all were filled, it seemed, as some were heavier than others. Each had a label. There were three with cinnamon written on them. One marked cassia (Chinese), another, Padang cassia (Indonesia), and the last, Ceylon verum. I lined the three cinnamon containers up and started for the next. Henry got out of his chair and shuffled over to where I last stood. When I returned with two more barrels, he was standing by the cinnamon.

“The Ceylon cinnamon is more pungent than the Chinese and the Indonesian. It has less coumarin; that’s rat poison and used medicinally as a blood thinner. Problem is that the Ceylon cinnamon quickly loses its flavor in cooking. Each spice has a story.”

I decided, right there, that this job could be fun. He’d piqued my interest and stirred my curiosity. As Henry returned to his chair, I wondered what he did with all these spices.

I placed a drum labeled nutmeg next to the cinnamon and one marked mace by that. I moved barrels all morning. There seemed to be hundreds of spices, and for many there was more than one barrel. Formula H24 appeared on multiple containers. I noticed other barrels carried letters and numbers, like Apple pie J17 and Salmon P5. The numbers were a code that I compulsively tried, but failed, to figure out.

By noon, I had emptied the truck, although I’d left a jumble of barrels, needing placement, at the entrance. At the back of the van, I found a few metal cases, some locked, a couple of scales of different sizes, and what looked like an industrial-sized grinder/mixer. I slowly wrestled the heavier items onto the hand truck and wheeled each into the building. Henry paid the driver, we said goodbye, and he took off.

Thirsty, wet from sweat. and hungry for lunch, I looked at Henry.

“How about we take a break?” Henry said, again seeming to read my mind. “It’s Tuesday. That’s when they slaughter the chickens at the Lamb Tavern. The chicken livers will never be fresher. Sautéed, they are delicious. Chef likes me to pop in and taste his creations. I can’t eat like I used to, due to the damn diabetes. How about we feed you?” 

Feed me? I licked my lips. Eating was one thing I could do well. I liked food. Mom served us calves’ liver, smothered in onions and sometimes with bacon–outstanding. I liked chopped chicken liver salad. How bad could sautéed chicken livers be?

“You know how to drive?” Henry asked me.

“I got my license a year ago when I turned sixteen,” I said.

“Good.  Let’s take a trip to the Lamb Tavern.”

Did Henry have a car there? I had wondered how he got there today. If I were going with him, given the state of his vision, I’d better drive. I’d heard of the Lamb Tavern, but I didn’t know much about it, except it was close to a hamburger hangout called Scotties. We locked up the building and got into Henry’s car, an old Studebaker. 

He directed me to the restaurant. When we entered the bar entrance, he was greeted by everyone, the bartender, maître de, and the waitstaff. It was like I was with royalty. Even the chef came out to say hello to Henry. Henry introduced me to him.

“He’ll be doing the eating for me.” Henry said.

The chef smiled. “You’re in for a treat.”

They sat us at the bar. I guessed that was okay if I was with Henry, although I must admit, I was a little uncomfortable. Mom never took us out to eat, and I was too young to be at a bar by myself.

Before long, the food started to appear. As predicted, I was served a plate of sautéed chicken livers smothered in fried onions, and mushrooms in a brown gravy. There was a side salad of mixed greens, tomato, cucumbers, raisins, and walnuts topped with a light vinaigrette, fresh grated cheese, and French bread. The chicken livers were steaming hot, and the fragrances rising off them made my mouth water.

As the chef and Henry watched, I gently pierced a portion of chicken liver with my fork, careful to include some onions and mushrooms with the gravy and put the morsel in my mouth. I was unable to suppress my pleasure. I let out a long, low spontaneous moan as the flavors exploded on my tongue. Henry and the chef smiled proudly at their achievement as I proceeded to devour my meal. Henry enjoyed a glass of wine and tasted several sauces the chef had prepared for him. He made some suggestions, I finished my lunch, and we prepared to leave. There was no charge.

On the way out, Henry told me in a stage whisper that the Hungry Star was getting in fresh fish tomorrow. I think he had gotten a kick out of feeding me, watching me moan with each bite, that extemporaneous affirmation of culinary perfection. Once in the car, I thanked him. He responded that it was his pleasure, and, for him, I sincerely think it was. 

“I have an incredible sense of taste,” he told me as we drove back to the warehouse. “I started making blends of spices and developed a whole business, Henry Smith’s Seasonings.” I could hear the pride in his voice. 

“Did you know my spices are in seven houses of royalty across Europe? They fly me in periodically to sample the food. I supply many supermarkets and grocery stores all over the world. All built on my palate. I get hired by Heinz and Kraft to go into their shops for tasting. They pay by the hour.” Henry paused. “The hardest part is taking my time. One taste and I can tell what is needed.” He chuckled. “I’m getting older, time is catching up with me. I’m slowing down. All in all, I’ve been very fortunate.”

I listened carefully. Here, I was at the beginning of my life, hardly able to imagine a future, uncertain if I had one. Henry’s words gave me hope: Dreams are attainable. Maybe I, too, could feel joy and satisfaction of accomplishment like Henry when I reached his age.

“How would you like to finish out the summer helping me mix spices? Same wage.”

“Sure,” I said.

When we arrived at the warehouse, I started setting up the drums in neat rows, separated by an aisle, pairing each barrel with another. I noted there were several containers labeled pepper. Black pepper, Henry told me, was produced from the green pepper cooked and dried in the sun to produce the dark, wrinkled appearance of the black peppercorns. White pepper came from the seed of the plant with its darker skin removed. Green pepper was the black pepper with its green coat preserved. White and green pepper, according to Henry, tasted different than black and were used in Chinese and Thai dishes. Henry said the Malabar black, from southern India, was the best.

Henry invited me to open the barrels and enjoy the fragrances. I accepted the invitation and proceeded to lift the lid of each barrel of pepper, sniffed, and snuck a taste. I agreed that the Malabar black was the most flavorful. Opening barrels and inhaling the rich, pungent odors became a regular thing. I didn’t like coriander; it smelled and tasted like soap.

Some of the last drums I moved contained chili pepper.

“Joe,” Henry called from across the room when I started to work with them, “be especially careful with the chilis. You need to wear a mask when you open those barrels, especially the habanero and naga. After handling them, don’t lick your lips or touch your face, and don’t get any in your eyes. Remember to wash your hands.”

I rolled the chili pepper barrels into place with care, heeding Henry’s advice, and left them alone. It took a couple more hours to get everything set up and organized. Once things were in order, Henry explained his system. 

“I started with A1 and worked through the alphabet, A to Z with 1, then A to Z with 2.  Just using my sense of taste, it took me to H24 to reach perfection. Formula H24 became the basis for most of my blends. I keep that one secret. That’s the only one I don’t share. Later this week, we need to make up a hundred pounds of apple pie seasoning. I’ll walk you through the process. All the formulas are in those locked metal boxes.”

I finished setting up scales and mixers, swept up the floor, then helped Henry to his car, uncertain how he drove it. He assured me he saw well enough to go the three blocks he needed to get home, although, he admitted, Mrs. Smith wasn’t happy with this plan.

I found my way to the P&W. As I waited for the trolley, I wondered about the hundred pounds of apple pie seasoning. That’s a lot of apple pie. Surely, the blend must include cinnamon. But what else would he put in it? Nutmeg, maybe, and—? I guessed I’d find out.

 Summer moved along quickly once I got into the routine of going to work. Lunch was always an adventure. Monday, most of the restaurants were closed, but not to Henry. He had his pick. Tuesdays, we always went to the Lamb Tavern; Wednesdays, to Hungry Star; Thursdays, to Mike’s Inn, and Fridays, to the Grill. The chefs always appreciated the delight I displayed, a confirmation of their skill. I was never able to suppress that unconstrained moan of pleasure with each mouthful.

My enthusiasm for baseball picked up, and I became more positive about everything. College became an attainable goal. Mom took a job at the University where the salary wasn’t much, but it came with free tuition for my sister and me, if we could get in. It was as if Henry’s seasonings had not only invigorated my sense of taste, but my life as well.

When I thanked Coach Hap for the opportunity to work for Mr. Smith, he just smiled. I think he knew what being with Henry would do for me. At the end of the summer, I said goodbye to Henry Smith, and he gave me a bag of small jars with his seasonings, each with the Henry Smith Seasoning logo on them. My favorite was the Malabar Black peppercorns. I ate them straight out of the container.

In September, I started my senior year. Life got very busy with college applications, sports, and school. I hadn’t much time to think about Henry Smith until Coach Hap contacted me that November to tell me Mr. Smith had passed away.

He will always live on in my memory.

“Henry Smith’s Seasoning” originally appeared in ArtPost Magazine, September 1, 2018.

Top 10 Favorite Foods

  1. Home smoked pastrami on Jewish seeded rye with deli mustard (smoked pastrami rub: black pepper, coriander, brown sugar, and mustard seed)
  2. Stuffed cabbage: ground beef, rice, raisins, thyme, red wine vinegar, crushed tomatoes, light brown sugar, black pepper, salt
  3. Boiled lobster in the shell with melted butter
  4. Ice cream (custard based, dutched cocoa powder, and dark chocolate swirl
  5. Grilled cheese on buttered sour dough bread three cheeses: provolone, cheder, and Swiss
  6. Crisp garden salad: lettuce, cucumber, tomato, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, coarsely ground black pepper
  7. Smoked salmon with dry rub: brown sugar, salt, black pepper
  8. Smoked baby back ribs: paprika, brown sugar, salt, black pepper, cayenne, apple juice
  9. Fried eggs, sunny side up or over easy, served on top of buttered seeded rye toast, with salt and black pepper
  10. Broiled salmon: potlatch seasoning, brown sugar, mayonnaise

Peter J. Barbour

Pete Barbour has been writing stories for over 30 years. He published a memoir, Loose Ends, in 1987, and a number of short stories. Since retirement in 2015, his stories have appeared in Short-Story.me, StoryStar.com, Rue Scribe, Piker Press, ARTPOST magazine, the Starlit Path, and the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. He wrote and illustrated three children’s books, Gus at Work (2016), Oscar and Gus (2019), and Tanya and the Baby Elephant (2021). His short story “Why Bats Live in Caves” appears in Fur, Feathers, & Scales, an anthology of sweet, funny, and strange animal tales (Bethlehem Writers Group, 2020). Links to his stories and illustrations can be found at his website.He loves the outdoors, and especially the Pacific Northwest, which serves as the setting for many of his stories. He is married, and likes to travel, which affords him the opportunity to absorb new experiences from which to write. Barbour attended the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate and Temple University School of Medicine where he earned his M.D. He completed his residency training in Neurology, at Stanford University School of Medicine and practiced medicine in the Lehigh Valley, retiring in 2015.He believes that what comes from the heart goes to the heart.


  1. Loved reading your creation. So glad to have come across you and your craft.

  2. Your descriptions make me want to visit Nevada! We loved Joshua Tree on our February trip to California!

  3. This story For The Love Of Dottie had my attention from the start. So many themes to consider- aging, dementia, jealousy, love.
    A beautiful love story with a suspenseful mystery- I want to read more!

  4. Peter: Your story, Henry Smith’s Seasonings, was an enjoyable read. Being a foodie myself, my cupboards and drawers groan with spices, so it hit home. That home-smoked pastrami sounds awesome.

  5. Loved your story about Henry
    Smith’s spices but it left me wanting more story and HUNGRY!

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