How did I start my day this morning? With a glass of tea. A glass of bagged tea. A glass of Earl Grey bagged tea. See, I love bag tea. I’ve dabbled in loose tea a few times — mostly when I was working a college job at Crabtree & Evelyn — and it’s fine, but it’s just so messy and complicated and then there’s the pot that is always drippy down the spout and gets scalding hot water everywhere including on my bare feet and it’s all just so…ugh. Pretty much, I like to start the kettle, plunk the bag in a pint glass, and just add water. Sina, you’re cringing, aren’t you? You can’t wait to show me the One True Way, can you?
Okay, bags aside, tea drinking hasn’t always been such a slap-dash, impersonal thing for me. Back in 1992, my mother and I toured the English countryside and we drank a lot of tea. In fact, every single one of the B&Bs we stayed in had a preciously personal tea set-up in our room. There would be a polished tin tray set with an electric kettle, two floral china cups and saucers, a teapot, and usually some cookies. However, my absolute favorite part of the set-up was the jug of cream. All the jugs were draped with crocheted doilies edged with tiny beads. The beads weighed the doilies down, and, as I understand it, the point of these delicately worked doilies was to keep bugs and dust and stuff out of the cream — it’s really quite ingenious!
My mother and I would get to our room, critically examine the tea and cookie choices, and then my mother would always, ALWAYS make me pose next to the tea things. I swear, we have about ten photos of me sitting next to a pile of cups and saucers.
Instead of drinking our tea at the proper English hour, we’d save it for bedtime. That’s also when we’d discuss which houses and castles we had visited that day, and where certain kings or queens fell into the historical timeline. We’d get confused by some of the early royalty — like Ethelred the Unwashed and Elgifups of Northampton — but luckily we had Antonia Fraser’s The Kings and Queens of England as a handy reference tool. The thing was, drinking tea that late at night had some interesting effects. Not that. God. No, see the tea was so stimulating that we ended up having very vivid dreams about all the kings, queens, murders, coups, and royal affairs we had been gossiping about before bed.
So, that was a tea ritual of sorts. In another ritual, my older sister and I instituted “Afternoon Tea” in our household when we were about eight and eleven. It was brought on by an obsession with Russell Hoban’s Frances books. We had all the books, Bread and Jam for Frances, Best Friends for Frances, A Bargain for Frances, etc. We liked these books so much that my mom gave us a record with Gynnis Johns (the suffragette mother from Mary Poppins) reading the story aloud. I think it was the record that put the bug in our ear to create our own Afternoon Tea because on it was the story A Bargain for Frances in which Frances’ calculating friend, Thelma, tricks Frances into buying Thelma’s old red-flowered plastic tea set off of her when she really wants “a real china tea set with pictures on it in blue.” My sister and I searched and searched but couldn’t find the elusive tea set “with pictures on it in blue,” so instead we settled for sets with blue flowers.
We’d put the Frances record on the player in the shag-carpeted den, set up the TV trays, and arrange our cups and saucers while my mother made the tea for us. Bigelow was the sole sponsor of our tea parties, and we drank either Lemon Lift or Constant Comment. As a kid, I thought that “Constant Comment” was a really weird name for a tea. I still think it’s a over-anxious marketing ploy gone awry, but I do love the spicy clove and orange rind-infused tea. On one little china plate, we placed slices of lemons for squeezing, filled a tiny pitcher with milk for pouring, and dipped a baby food spoon into a sugar-filled bowl for sweetening. Always looking for new ways to stuff sugar into our mouths, we’d take a spoonful of sugar and suspended it briefly in our tea cup before quickly pulling it out. It was a delicate balance. We immersed the spoon just long enough for the sugar to get wet without allowing it to swirl away into the brew. Then we ate the spoonful of tea-dampened sugar.
Looking back, I wonder if Frances was the only inspiration for our tea parties. After all, my mother had already introduced us to the world of murder mysteries through books, movies, and Masterpiece Theatre, and we noted that a lot of tea drinking went on in them. That probably had something to do with the fact that we read and watched chiefly British sleuths: Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, even Hercule Poirot with his tisanes (which we learned were herbal teas) — they all drank vats of tea in each book. The influence was strong. Come to think if it, sherry was another British mystery thing — heroines were constantly sipping on glasses of sherry and dabbing eau de cologne on their temples in order to recover from the shock of discovering a dead body. Or in order to recover from the shock of disposing of a dead body. My parents had a dust-encrusted bottle of sherry that we dipped into once. And promptly spit it out. We weren’t curious about it after that. We stuck to tea.
Sometimes my sister and I had food to accompany our tea. Nothing fancy like cucumber sandwiches or scones with clotted cream and preserves, though. We were perfectly happy with our stacks of the Very Thin Pepperidge Farm bread, which was lightly toasted, buttered, and dusted with cinnamon and sugar.
Tea has also been a cure-all for me. Come headache, sore throat, or upset stomach, I’ve always turned to tea. In fact, when I had all four of my severely impacted wisdom teeth out and had an ugly reaction to my codeine — which took the oral surgeon, like, DAYS to figure out even though about 70% the population has that same ugly reaction to codeine, but don’t mind me sleeping on the bathroom floor in 90° MINNESOTA SUMMER HEAT WITH MY HEAD IN THE TOILET! — all I could keep down was Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese and weak tea.
There you go, I do have a history of my own tea rituals, but maybe it’s now time for me to branch out and experience some new ones. Jeez — I think I still have that tin of Orange Pekoe from Crabtree & Evelyn. I should probably get rid of that.