A Cup of Tea

A cup of masala chai

Image via Wikipedia

When I was a little girl tea was Lipton.  Scalding, flavorless and punishment for being ill.  The only people I knew who drank tea willingly were my aunties.  Neither of whom believed that the vile steaming concoction should be sullied in any way by anything flavorful – like milk or, god forbid, sugar.

Like any good Midwestern girl, coffee was my anticipated beverage of choice, but though both of my parents drank it by the pot full – not one of their children developed a taste. Even twenty years of teaching failed to coerce me to take more than a sip.

So it was a surprise to all when I became a tea drinker.

It began rather innocently with my late husband who cajoled me into sampling a vanilla chai latte at that coffee shop in the mall. He was a Mocha man himself and we couldn’t go a Sunday without making a stop. He loved coffee. He bought one of those coffee makers that could make anything and taught himself to steam milk and make espresso and lattes.

Then, of course, Starbucks arrived and chai became my vice of choice. The only drive through in the entire city for a goodly while was right on the way to the high school where I taught. A convenience I was sure that the universe placed there just to make it up to me for recent slights and injuries.

Rob is the one though who taught me to make a cup of tea after coddling me first with chai latte from a mix. Although he swears he had as little idea as I about chai in the beginning. He, at least, knew how to make a simple cup of tea.

There is, though, a proper way to make tea. American people do not make tea of any kind properly from hot to iced*;  it’s an epic fail.

Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece recently on the proper way to make tea. He was inspired, or incited, by a quote by Yoko Ono relating her tea tutelage under her late husband,

It was Dec. 8, and Yoko Ono had written a tribute to mark the 30th anniversary of the murder of her husband. In her New York Times op-ed, she recalled how the two of them would sometimes make tea together. He used to correct her method of doing so, saying, “Yoko, Yoko, you’re supposed to first put the tea bags in, and then the hot water.” (This she represented as his Englishness speaking, in two senses, though I am sure he would actually have varied the word order and said “put the tea bags in first.”) This was fine, indeed excellent, and I was nodding appreciatively, but then the blow fell. One evening, he told her that an aunt had corrected him. The water should indeed precede the bags. “So all this time, we were doing it wrong?” she inquired. “Yeah,” replied our hero, becoming in that moment a turncoat to more than a century of sturdy Liverpool tradition.

I simply hate to think of the harm that might result from this. It is already virtually impossible in the United States, unless you undertake the job yourself, to get a cup or pot of tea that tastes remotely as it ought to.

I think he should cut Ono a bit of slack. Thirty years on one’s memories of one’s deceased partner are shiny and yellowed with age after all. And she’s allowed to paraphrase. My version of my live husband is often disputed by him. I can only imagine how far off the mark I do on the dead one and he’s only been gone five years now.

Hitchens goes on to outline proper tea making procedures according to some ancient rules dreamed up by George Orwell:

If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: “[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.” This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.

It’s not quite over yet. If you use milk, use the least creamy type or the tea will acquire a sickly taste. And do not put the milk in the cup first—family feuds have lasted generations over this—because you will almost certainly put in too much. Add it later, and be very careful when you pour. Finally, a decent cylindrical mug will preserve the needful heat and flavor for longer than will a shallow and wide-mouthed—how often those attributes seem to go together—teacup. Orwell thought that sugar overwhelmed the taste, but brown sugar or honey are, I believe, permissible and sometimes necessary.

Mostly, I agree. Though Rob thinks there is nothing wrong with the milk going in first and I think the non-sweetener people are a bit daft and maybe show-offy to boot.

Can’t imagine a reality without a cup of tea anymore. Such a place would be dystopian.

*Most places in the States have sugar-free iced tea. They bring it to you in restaurants too cold really to add any sugar to it when it should just be sweetened already. The horror. I had no idea though actually that ice tea should be sweet to begin with until I moved to Canada. Civilization where tea is concerned really.

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