Friday, February 10, 2012

Giving Tea A Chance

          I’ve decided to give tea a chance. When I was young, my father said I drank “flea pee,” and he had a point. My method was to quickly pass a tea bag through hot water and call it a day. With a couple of cubes of sugar it wasn’t too bad. My grandmother served what she called Cambric tea. It was merely hot water with milk and sugar, but we drank it from lovely fragile cups with decorated saucers. She served bittersweet Mary Janes stacked on tiny china plate. These were lumpy squares of a molasses cookie frosted with watered powdered sugar. I loved them.

But I digress…
            Tea was a big deal back in the Colonial days. Those few individuals hugging the eastern coast bought about a million pounds of tea a year. And we’ve grown up thinking they revolted because it was taxed. Not exactly. The tea tax just broke the camel’s back. It was all the items the King had earmarked on that bill that did it. (Do we ever learn our lessons?) Those Colonists had a long list of grievances. The early settlers braved the weather with mugs of dark tea clutched in their cold hands. And they drank it with no sugar or milk. Once in a while they found ways to spice up the brew, but mostly they drank it straight.
            My parents were both coffee drinkers. I remember when Daddy finally talked mother into giving up doctoring hers with cream and sugar. He suggested she stop cold turkey, but she graciously declined and every day cut back a miniscule amount. Took a long time. Neither my sister nor I drank coffee. Not that it was forbidden. We just weren’t interested.
            Daddy was fussy about his brew.  In restaurants, he had the waiter first fill his cup with hot water. Only when the cup was properly heated, would he allow the waiter to empty the water and fill the cup with hot coffee. Shortly after my marriage, my father dropped by one morning to visit. I offered to make him a cup of coffee. I had the fixings as my husband was a coffee drinker. I made the coffee and served it to my father. He sipped then thought a moment. “Is this what you serve Dick?” he asked.
            I nodded
            “Has he ever said anything about it?”
            I shook my head. “No.”
            My father smiled. “He really loves you.” Then he proceeded to teach me how to made a decent cup of coffee.
            It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle that I began to drink coffee. My Seattle friends take this business seriously. In 1971, three young men opened a coffee bar they called Starbucks. Then in 1982, Howard Schultz came along and the next year took a trip to Italy. Voila!  The designer $5 latte was born. As I sit with friends, sipping our fancy concoctions, the talk centers on dark roasted or blended, Columbian or Ethiopian. I decided I’d better get with it. I don’t tell them, but I’m not a connoisseur—not even close. I don’t really care and doctor my coffee with all manner of things. But I love the friendship and conversations as we savor our lattes.
            But I started out writing about tea. I have discovered this subject is just as solemn as the coffee one. There’s Jasmine, Darjeeling, Lapsang, Souchong, Earl Grey, herbal, loose, bagged, medicinal. I even have tea that has been blessed in a Shinto Shrine and some from Nepal. My friend Patrick took a class in Japanese Tea Ceremony (called Chanoya). There were ten sessions. Everything was ritualized, with everyone fully participating. It was seriously serious, a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea (called matcha). It’s not really about drinking tea, more about the aesthetics, preparing tea from one’s heart. Patrick said that what arose was a calm sense of aliveness, known as the spirit of the tea. A lovely thought. Patrick still drinks tea, usually out of a mug, but he’s never forgotten the experience of making and drinking tea as a ceremony.
I visited the Turkish Tea Institute, outside of Rive near the Black Sea where the steep hills are covered with tea plantations. The director took my friends and me around, giving us esoteric information about soil, weather, growing, and processing tea. Apparently Lipton was making severe inroads on the Turkish tea trade with their bags. The director spit out the word “bags” explaining they were filled with the sweepings from the floors of warehouses. Turkish people are dedicated tea (chai) drinkers. Most families have samovars, beautiful vessels made from everything from enamel and silver to battered tin. Samovar means self-boiler and is a way of having hot water to make tea and keep it hot. It’s also useful when you have a guest like me who’s used to drinking “flea pee.” You can always dilute the strong cup.
In England and Ireland I couldn’t tolerate the black brew they called tea. I drank shandys and was called a sissy by my friends.
            If you opened one of my kitchen cabinets, you’d swear I was a tea drinker. I’ve got at least twelve different kinds of tea. It’s what I serve when my Writer’s Salon group comes once a month. I’m getting to be a better tea drinker. I’ve got a lovely tea cozy Cynthia sent me from Scotland. I’ve learned about steeping and have cut down to one sugar cube. And I’m experimenting. Just made a cup of mint tea. Hm-m-m. Maybe this will be the one. 


  1. Nicely done, Ruth. Check out, a cool and charming website about tea.

  2. Engaging post with interesting historical references and thought provoking observations. When I was in Japan I participated in the Tea Ceremony 3 times in 3 different environments that ranged from the bucolic surroundings of a Buddhist monastery in Kamakura to a high rise hotel in Tokyo. There was an earthquake during the Tokyo ceremony, but I was the only one who was fazed by it as the rest of the participants were either from Tokyo or the Bay area in California. I am totally devoted to fresh ground high quality coffee beans steeped in my "Sweet Maria" full immersion carafe. One of these is all it takes. I rarely drink any more than that. I have to admit, I'm with your Father on this. At this point it makes regular old coffee very unappealing. I know it sounds snobbish, but "how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen the lights of gay Paree?" We recently bought a sampler of really good, fresh tea from all over and it is absolutely out of this world. I could easily become a devotee!