Thursday, October 1, 2009

Making my fortune with John D. Harney

I've always wanted to have my tea leaves read. Lord knows I've had plenty of opportunity — plenty of leaf-strewn cups, anyway. I just always expected that when the moment of prognostication arrived, the person on the other side of the table would be swarthy and wrapped in silks and named Madame Zelda. Not a sweet old man in an elephant tie.

John D. Harney, founder of Harney & Sons, was in Chicago last weekend for a frou-frou Sunday tea dance at the Drake. I enjoyed a nice long chat with him in cozy armchairs over tea. He's quite a guy, the kind of guy who says things like this: "I was just in Boston, on the wharf, where they threw the stuff over. Of course, the English at that time were a pain in the ass."

Harney started his tea business in 1983. "Tea wasn't an important thing then," he said. "It wasn't until ’85 that it started to really grow. There were a few articles that came out then about tea's health benefits, and it started to catch on." What began as a family operation in a Connecticut basement is now a big business with a New York factory and 80-plus employees.

Harney & Sons specializes in blending. "You can take two teas, or three or four, and simply make them better," Harney said. The Harney version of Earl Grey is a blend, he said, of four teas, plus the bergamot. Their English Breakfast, on the other hand, bucks trends the other way: instead of being a blend of assams and such, it's 100 percent keemun.

But at the Drake on Sunday, Harney wasn't present to talk about tea as much as he was there to stare at the dregs. Harney was reading tea leaves and hawking a new, privately published book: Tea Leaf Reading. It's a book with a curious backstory: The owners of a B&B in Norfolk, Conn., were cleaning their attic and discovered a book about reading tea leaves, attributed only to "a Highland Seer." They gave the book to Harney, the tea guy they knew. He investigated its source and could find no copyright for it. So he's had the book reprinted in its entirety, plus a new introduction by James Norwood Pratt.

Women were waiting in line for Harney to find their fortunes in a teacup. "I treat it as a fun thing," he said. "You talk to a person for three or four minutes, you know something about them and what they want." For each reading, he'd scoop two spoonfuls of tea leaves out of a pot and into a cup, followed by just a smidge of liquid. He swung the cup back and forth in the air three times, then up-ended it on the saucer. The tea leaves remaining in the cup were the "ink blots" he examined.

"Oh my God, look at that face!" he exclaimed for a woman named Sharon. "Or it could be a lion." Sharon was skeptical at first, but soon she was caught up and showing the cup to me: "Look, you can see the eyes," she said. OK, sure ...

Harney ID'd shapes and figures in the cups, then looked them up in part of the book. It's like a dream dictionary — look up your object, read what it symbolizes. "Hawk: an enemy." "Ladder: a sign of travel." We could all open up our fortune-telling boutique tomorrow. Harney might stake us. "Anything that makes more people pay attention to tea," he said. "I'm all for."

1 comment:

  1. I'm all for getting people to notice tea, too. Was there any truth to what the Scottish saw in their teacups? Perhaps. I lament that the advent of teabags took away a lot of the interest in the fortunes held in those cups of tea. People just couldn't see anything promised in those bags of tea. But many are starting to awaken to tea these days, and it's a good thing. --Teaternity