My grandmother was a kitchen singer, an apron wearer who trilled the rs and drew out the tra-la-las in all the old songs while she kneaded bread dough or blanched tomatoes. Some days growing up, I spent more time in her windswept farmhouse outside of town than I did in my own home, my mother resting off another migraine or simply needing a break. And it was in those summers that she chose me for the league of tea drinkers, pouring off a bit of the hot brew onto a pink Melmac plate and blowing on it until it would no longer burn my tongue. Something about that gentle ritual hooked me.
The tea was just Lipton, instant powder from a tall, green-capped jar that’s a trademark of my memory. When you opened the lid, a curl of brown smoke would dissipate into the air, acrid and slightly sweet. A bitterness most kids would have rejected. The point wasn’t the tea but the sugar anyhow, and she stirred so much into the milk glass cup that it swirled into a syrup. I lapped it up and asked for more. She laughed to see me liking anything, fussy boy who turned away her pot roast and her famous hand-rolled noodles.
A note on origins: Of the nearly 280 English words and phrases with clear Chinese roots (tong and tycoon, brainwash and bok choy), tea is chief among them and one of the least altered from its Tang Dynasty origins, making me wonder what emperors and green mansion girls would think of the factory concentrate we relished or the tattered Chinese checkers board Grandma would pull out on slow afternoons with its squinty-eyed men and their terrifying wispy mustaches, its font like a neon sign for chop suey. Dig a hole deep enough and you’ll hit China. Eat that or I’ll send it to the starving kids in China.
My grandmother drank mostly coffee herself, Taster’s Choice crystals from a squat glass jar, having long banished the percolator to the attic. Too much burned, re-boiled coffee during the Depression. Too much guesswork to the grounds. A spoon of Coffeemate or a glug from the half-and-half carton, and she could be revived for another day of feeding chickens or raking sycamore bark from the yard. Yet she saw something regal in tea and kept her eye out for a tender grandson to spoil with a sophisticated, safely adult drink.
Haunting tea shops in the great cities of the world has become a curious habit of my travels: the quiet, dim Murchie’s in Vancouver where the staff labors to bring down enormous jars of bright-smelling leaves; the ostentatious TWG show room in Leicester Square where the loose leaf comes in caviar tins and the clerks, all male, are as obsequious as used car salesmen. The tiny Churchill’s at Findlay Market, Cincinnati, where every tea is available for sniffing. The alleyside Postcard Teas in Mayfair, London, so saucer-cute and serious that I felt I had never tasted real tea until I went there. How strange were their senchas and raw pu’ers to my Western tea palate, all grass and smoke, the very tang of the firing pan wafting up in every sip.
I had gone to London to see a lover who jilted me after I booked the flight. So to keep myself from lingering too long on Tower Bridge or blowing my budget on chocolates at Harrods, I joined a Tea Walk with a woman named Lera whose face sunk when I admitted I sometimes preferred bags, and who led us in meditation in the garden where Keats took his breaks between drafts of poems. “Tea must breathe, it must speak to you,” she said, passing around a communal bowl for us to inhale. We drank first flush and second flush darjeelings – the favorite and second favorite of Prince Harry – while standing in the great market squares where tea, picked and bundled by slaves, was once traded, and we peered around the arched doorways of the oldest teahouses, imagining the revolts planned, the treaties drafted. On my last morning, I ate a proper breakfast: beans and bangers, toast and chutney, at a South London café named Terry’s where the tea was not good but every box and tin bore my name. I left England neither won over to milk in my cup or having gotten over the lover, who would not ride the ninety kilometers from Oxford to see me off with a pot of Earl Grey.
Another tea memory: Samovar, Gorohovaya Street, House 27, St. Petersburg, 2003. Unsmiling counter women snatch the transliterated menu from my hands to stop my butchering of the mother tongue. Blini with bacon and mushrooms, cheese salad, and a giant brass urn with a spigot you served yourself from. A pale jade stream into which bits of melon or peach would appear, fruit intensified by the steeping. I didn’t dare take a second cup, so I savored what my rubles had earned me, gazing out across the canal at the sandstone flanks of Soviet tenements, the jewel-bright domes of deconsecrated cathedrals. I have since been vainly devoted to greens.
Housebound for the better part of a year, sure that life would never regain its rhythms, I clung to those routines which were most essential, most likely to keep the mind from the brink. Hot cups of tea with mandarin oranges before bedtime. Gallons of sun tea, that ‘70s craze of countryfolk and hippies alike, brewed simply from bags in a jug of water set in the gentle heat of a back step. I even made a morning tea schedule: blackcurrant on Mondays, Harney and Son’s vanilla-scented Paris on Thursdays. Fridays for Steve’s proprietary blend of Cameron’s apricot and mango, a packet of which he produces from his suitcase every summer. Idle hours I spent online searching tea sites for new flavors: elderflower and almond, pine bark and tomato leaf.
A brief history of tea in pandemics: herbs, of course, filled the pockets of medieval plague avoiders to clear the evil air, lavender and chamomile to keep down stomach bile. Henry H. Von Schlick’s 1914 “Bulgarian Blood Tea” to fight off Spanish Flu, supposedly composed of May appleroot, mountain grape root, and sassafras, but later judged to be largely Epsom salt. A 2007 study which found that a flavonoid in green tea could reduce the likelihood of HIV binding to human T cells, if drunk within the first three hours of exposure. And the teas I gave my mother last Christmas, the only way I touched her for months, afraid I’d expose her.
If anything, I drank tea during those uncertain days because a virus cannot steal from us our most blood-deep memories. Holidays with aunts arguing over the sweetness of the pitcher. Late night diner cups to stave off hangovers, served with plastic packets of lemon juice. Steaming mugs on the edge of the bathtub, fighting down a fever. My father’s proclamation that no two things were better paired than iced tea and cherry pie. He was a prolific sweet tea drinker in his day, but eventually the caffeine kept him up and then prostate cancer turned him off drinking much of anything. Kidney stones haunted him, yet he would not so much as have a daily glass of water. Last year, after open-heart surgery, he took only the sips the nurses insisted, and the phlegm clotted in his lungs, brought up by terrifying, deep-throated coughs. I vowed that so long as I lived I would drink some and then drink a little more.
I don’t know what comforts coffee offers. Several men have refused to go out with me because I don’t drink it. One would pre-empt any dinner offer by saying he’d rather just “do Starbucks,” or fidget in his seat while we ate until we could hustle up the street to get his iced mocha. Others who have spent the night refuse my offer of local beans and a French press, saying it’s not a “treat” unless a barista froths a fern leaf or a heart into the foam. Unless it’s $5.99 with a dollar tip.
A 2016 study projected American consumption of coffee at 88 gallons per person to tea’s mere 33. Below Coke and Pepsi, Sprite and Fanta, on par with bottled water and energy drinks, tea is a mere option among many, not the rage of a nation. I understand that while tea may be favored by the rest of the globe, in the United States it is the beverage of schoolmarms and lifelong bachelors, of shawl wearers and people who do crossword puzzles in ink. Anglophiles who coordinate the colors of their cozies, bake scones for the birthday of the queen.
For many it seems an occasional fancy, a sip of Christmas nostalgia by the fireplace, with extra cinnamon. Or a mother’s prescription, ginger or peppermint to cure a stomachache or a stuffy nose. But tea runs chrism-thick in my veins, and it goes with me in the hours of my placid surviving and in the hours of my taking away.
Terry Kirts is the author of To the Refrigerator Gods, published in the Editor’s Choice Series in poetry by Seven Kitchens Press in 2010. He is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. His poetry and essays have appeared in such journals as Alimentum, Another Chicago Magazine, Boog City, Gastronomica, Green Mountains Review, Presence, and Taco Bell Quarterly, as well as the anthologies Let’s Fry Up Some Poetry, Writer’s Resist: Hoosier Writers Unite, St. Peter’s B-list, and others. His culinary articles and restaurant reviews have appeared widely, and he is currently a dining critic for Indianapolis Monthly.
If you enjoyed Terry’s piece on the memories and rituals around a cup of tea, take a look at other work in our Comfort Foods series for more on the rich relationship between what we eat and who we are.