Sunday in the Park
March 11, 2006
Though in desperation I have broken my own rules, really the beverage is never to be consumed in Styrofoam, paper, metal or a too-thick, oversized mug. The taking of tea is as much ceremony as re-hydration. It is a process, a minor or major production considering your mood and time constraints. For me, the taking of tea is not some archaic custom but rather one of the few civilized rituals I allow myself, almost every day.
Like most Americans, I grew up in a family of coffee drinkers, and married into yet another family of coffee drinkers. Strong, bitter and never, to me, aromatic in a pleasing way.
In high school, when I had the same teacher my senior year for current events and psychology, we decided his classes were too similar for me to attend both. I could, therefore, have a free first period if I would go off campus to the donut shop and buy him a cup of coffee (he paid). I had a friend who, legitimately, had a free first period and we would go to the donut shop, dilly and dally, compare boys and hair and have great existential conversations about which Beatle was more god-like, John or Paul. This was done with her coffee black, with sugar, and my choking down some weak Lipton’s from a bag in a Styrofoam cup. Once a week or so I would sit down with Hal (in the ’60s we called our teachers by their first names) and we would have a discussion about current events and ancient principles. It was all very adult. I got A’s in both classes.
By high school I had been drinking tea for a very long time. Proverbial tea parties since childhood but also, my mother sometimes would substitute her coffee and drink tea from fine china cups. The aroma was heady, magical. So much more exotic and mysterious than that heavy oppressive coffee smell. Sometimes she even purchased teas that didn’t come all tidy in bags — loose teas that needed to be strained just like in the Chinese restaurants she would, on special occasions, take us to. Teas that had flowers swimming in the liquid and tasted radically different. Jasmine, I learned, trumped Lipton. Jasmine, not in a bag but loose with flower blossoms, trumped all.
I would, from time to time, try coffee, rather like I tried cigarettes. So many sophisticated people seemed to love both and even both together. But I could never choke down a whole cup or finish an entire cigarette. I would play with both, like props in some play where I was a character leading a far more important, serious and romantic life than my own. The short-lived act always left me choking. So I became a bit of a tea snob, by default really, in search of an identity all my own. That, and I liked the warm, often sweet liquid.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, a clothing company came along custom-made for a daydreaming and (at that point in time) a not-very-well-traveled girl, like me. It started out with an exotic catalog of sketches of clothing and little short stories, about how the purveyors had first come upon the perfect flight jacket or long leather skirt or bush bag. So literate was this catalog that whole cults sprung up about the myths these talented writers created. (You can see where J. Peterman took their idea.) By the time the first Banana Republic store opened, an entire contingent of young, wannabe, safari-bound adventurers were willing to pay high prices for original-looking clothes. Alas, all good things become multi-conglomerate. The trendy Gap folks saw a good thing and bought up the young company and soon the goods looked like the products from any other mass-produced, mass-marketed, corporation.
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I was still drinking tea. More so. I had started to amass a rather impressive collection of infusers and strainers, and delicate china cups. My ratio of bagged teas to loose was about the same, my lifestyle requiring more bags than I really cared to admit. At home, tea became a ritual of brewing and steeping and getting the balance of flavors, honey replacing sugar, just right. My children learned to prepare a proper cup and they preferred tea to coffee as they came of age. I should have known the man who came into our lives, brewing his belching pots of thick, smelly coffee would never understand our more genteel ways. Eventually, he and his pot and his thick heavy mugs were invited to leave together.
About 12 years ago, I found a new tea company displayed in a fine store. Not a tea store, more like a home furnishings place, maybe where fine china was sold. The canisters were colorful and the language was romantic. They offered both loose and bagged teas. Rather exotic sounding teas, fair traded, in unbleached bags. Desert sage, and white peony. The company was called The Republic of Tea. I tripped over their book not too long ago. A very smart, very funny, very literate book about the starting up of a company, that asked the original founders of the Banana Republic, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, about what it took to start a company and create an image. Now, of course, you can find this tea in all its variations from smart book stores to the trendy World Market. They have expanded their lines and their outlets. Should you have any questions of the company, you simply send your inquiry to the Minister of Supply. So bloody civilized.
Teas now have a way of finding me. When I travel I trip over tea stores. I find I judge restaurants by the tea they serve. The latest trend is fine teas presented in some kind of silk-like fabric. Beautiful teas, in these transparent bags you sink into your cup and watch the flowers and leaves open together in the hot water. Even better, the trend to drop a single, tight, dried blossom into a cup or a glass teapot and watch the peony or the jasmine flower slowly open before you, for you.
There are shelves of books sold and frequent articles in magazines about ways to slow down our busy lives. I would offer a rather simple, healing solution. Drink more tea. Buy yourself a fine bone china cup, maybe a delicate china spoon and inhale the mystery that blossoms as beverage. I find it the most soothing way to start or break up or end the day, especially a Sunday, in the Park