Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tea is fast food

As much as I admire the slow food movement and the farmer's market missionaries, I can't help wonder sometimes if they're all craving a pastoral innocence that never really existed. This hunger for uber-fresh foods and produce absolutely untouched by the hand of man, certainly machine, strikes me as a psychological response to urban living more than any real nutritional or health benefit.

A new story in Utne Reader, "In Praise of Fast Food," builds on that perspective, pointing out that processed foods were often the only kind earlier humans would or could eat. Rachel Laudan writes:

For our ancestors, natural was something quite nasty. Natural often tasted bad. Fresh meat was rank and tough, fresh fruits inedibly sour, fresh vegetables bitter. Natural was unreliable. Fresh milk soured; eggs went rotten. Everywhere seasons of plenty were followed by seasons of hunger. Natural was also usually indigestible. Grains, which supplied 50 to 90 percent of the calories in most societies, have to be threshed, ground, and cooked to make them edible.

So to make food tasty, safe, digestible, and healthy, our forebears bred, ground, soaked, leached, curdled, fermented, and cooked naturally occurring plants and animals until they were literally beaten into submission. They created sweet oranges and juicy apples and non-bitter legumes, happily abandoning their more natural but less tasty ancestors. They built granaries, dried their meat and their fruit, salted and smoked their fish, curdled and fermented their dairy products, and cheerfully used additives and preservatives—sugar, salt, oil, vinegar, lye—to make edible foodstuffs.

Eating fresh, natural food was regarded with suspicion verging on horror; only the uncivilized, the poor, and the starving resorted to it. When the ancient Greeks took it as a sign of bad times if people were driven to eat greens and root vegetables, they were rehearsing common wisdom. Happiness was not a verdant Garden of Eden abounding in fresh fruits, but a securely locked storehouse jammed with preserved, processed foods.

I think about this in relation to tea quite often. It is one of the most processed products on the planet, and it wouldn't be that tasty or enjoyable if it weren't. People used to (and still do) chew fresh tea leaves. I tried this once. You think your overbrewed cup is bitter? Our human know-how tames the bad parts and brings out the good parts. Yay, science!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Teaku No. 8

Even when it's hot
I still take afternoon tea.
Summer, winter — meh.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Not knocking Knoxville for tea treasures

My, we've done a lot of traveling this year, and still more to come. Last week we found ourselves in eastern Tennessee — a family reunion, of sorts, and yes Dollywood was involved! — and the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. While killing time waiting for someone else's flight one rainy afternoon in Knoxville, I Google Mapped "tea" and discovered (thank you, tea gods) that we were very near someplace called Tea & Treasures. I believe the route we took can be described as a beeline. Or a tealine?

Tea & Treasures is a typical Southern shop, a converted old house — as its brochure says, "located under the magnolias at the corner or Martin Mill Pike and Keeble Avenue" — full of what my mother would describe as "antiquey crap." The tea part of the Tea & Treasures equation is misleading and disappointing — a small table by the stairs with a tureen of hot water and some Harney & Sons packets in a styrofoam cup. Some treasures, however, can be had. Bypass the ticky-tacky from local "artists" (though one woman does make a cute array of hand-painted tea cups, and I almost bought one painted like wood on a saucer painted with red autumn leaves) and head for the piles of junk china and old teaware. Among these, I found my favorite new teapot for an absolute steal ...

It's a beautiful, deep pink glaze, with a matching ceramic tray and one tiny cup, and it's weighty and large, holding several cups. Just thought I'd share my find!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Not a spot of tea, just a drop

A note leftover from our summer travels: One other item I purchased at the Sing Tehus in Copenhagen was a packet of Green Kiss tea drops.

They're basically lozenges, little football-shaped green drops with ribbed sides, a hard-candy confection of sugar and matcha powder. I'm kind of addicted to Ricola lozenges, as it is, so it was nice to force a switch to something tea-related. They taste just as you'd expect, like a sweet dose of matcha. I find them handy when I'm running errands or between afternoon appointments and unable to work in a cup of actual tea. It's not a huge shot of green tea, but it's better than nothing.

Difficult to find in the States, of course, but you can order them inexpensively from London's Harvey Nichols here — and in different flavors: regular matcha, cherry, lemon and mint.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Anton Chekhov and some great old Russian tea

In some recent travels, I picked my way through a particularly splendid used book store and came away with a slim volume of Anton Chekhov's letters from his 1890 journey east into Siberia. Cheers to the editor or academic who spotted the value of collecting this particular ream of correspondence; together it makes for a revealing travelogue, a piece of reportage about not only the sights and smells of a landscape many of us will never see but also the timbre of the society there at the time ("Out here nobody worries about saying what he thinks. There's no one to arrest you and nowhere to exile people to so you can be as liberal as you please"). I, of course, was struck by often he mentions tea in his travels, which take him down the Amur River, with Russia on his left and China on his right:

I'm drinking excellent tea, after which I feel pleasantly stimulated.

This is a reoccurring note in his letters, taking tea with other riverboat passengers, officers of the ship, folks in various towns. Can you imagine provincial tea north of China in 1890? Strong stuff! (salivate)

This, after all, from a man who lived a short while in a tea shop. Reminds me, too, of this passage from one of Chekhov's many short stories, this one focusing on a tea party and titled simply "The Party":

The tables were already laid under the trees; the samovars were smoking, and Vassily and Grigory, in their swallow-tails and white knitted gloves, were already busy with the tea-things. On the other bank, opposite the "Island of Good Hope," there stood the carriages which had come with the provisions. The baskets and parcels of provisions were carried across to the island in a little boat like the Penderaklia. The footmen, the coachmen, and even the peasant who was sitting in the boat, had the solemn expression befitting a name-day such as one only sees in children and servants.

While Olga Mihalovna was making the tea and pouring out the first glasses , the visitors were busy with the liqueurs and sweet things. Then there was the general commotion usual at picnics over drinking tea, very wearisome and exhausting for the hostess. Grigory and Vassily had hardly had time to take the glasses round before hands were being stretched out to Olga Mihalovna with empty glasses. One asked for no sugar, another wanted it stronger, another weak, a fourth declined another glass. And all this Olga Mihalovna had to remember, and then to call, "Ivan Petrovitch, is it without sugar for you?" or, "Gentlemen, which of you wanted it weak?" But the guest who had asked for weak tea, or no sugar, had by now forgotten it, and, absorbed in agreeable conversation, took the first glass that came. Depressed-looking figures wandered like shadows at a little distance from the table, pretending to look for mushrooms in the grass, or reading the labels on the boxes -- these were those for whom there were not glasses enough. "Have you had tea?" Olga Mihalovna kept asking, and the guest so addressed begged her not to trouble, and said, "I will wait," though it would have suited her better for the visitors not to wait but to make haste.

Some, absorbed in conversation, drank their tea slowly, keeping their glasses for half an hour; others, especially some who had drunk a good deal at dinner, would not leave the table, and kept on drinking glass after glass, so that Olga Mihalovna scarcely had time to fill them. One jocular young man sipped his tea through a lump of sugar, and kept saying, "Sinful man that I am, I love to indulge myself with the Chinese herb." He kept asking with a heavy sigh: "Another tiny dish of tea more, if you please." He drank a great deal, nibbled his sugar, and thought it all very amusing and original, and imagined that he was doing a clever imitation of a Russian merchant.

Heath Cereamics sets the bar

I just spent a while grooving on the tea-porn photos on the Heath Ceramics site. Heath is a tableware and tile company founded in 1948, based in Sausalito, Calif. The namesake, Edith Heath, used innovative glazes and some really simple but alluring modern forms to make pottery that's also functional. Heath was bought in 2003, and the new owners seem to be trying to spread awareness of their treasures. It's about time.

They make a lot of stuff, by hand, but here are some drool-worthy pics of their teaware:

The large teapots go for $175 ... but dig this small one — with a cork! — for $68:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Taking tea — no, really, stealing it

Speaking of the battle of the bottled teas, Honest Teas this summer has tried out their "honor system" gimmick here on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. It's a small stand of cold teas, but unmanned. You pay a buck on the honor system. Honest Tea, get it? Whatever, here's a video about the results ...

Chicago, I'm proud to report, fared well in this lil' test: 78 percent of people paid.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lollapalooza, Lady Gaga and cans of quenching tea

A month away, welcome back, all. What have I been doing in the meantime? Sweating and hiking through Lollapalooza, for one.

I bring this up here only because the biggest performer at last weekend's annual concert festival here in Chicago's beautiful Grant Park was tea-lover extraordinaire, Lady Gaga. (Of course, we keep calling her a famous tea lover — but the tea cups she carries around as apparent fashion accessories are always empty.) I did my utmost to lurk backstage, hoping to spot our lady taking tea. Alas, nothing. Here's my review of her performance, though, plus all our other Lolla coverage, if anyone's interested.

In other Lady Gaga news, rumors abounded a couple of weeks ago that the pop star was the focus of a bidding war between tea companies vying for her spokeswomanship. This report and others suggested she was going to sign with Twinings, and there's talk of a special Gaga blend. Little Monsters Matcha, anyone?

Another Lollapalooza note: One of the sponsors again this year was Sweet Leaf Tea (their Lollapalooza blog is here). Weather was just not-hot enough that I didn't feel I had to constantly be chugging water all three days, so I was able to enjoy several of their bottled teas to stay hydrated. The cans — cans! — of green tea with citrus, and some with mint, were pretty great. I always say this, but getting the sweetness just right in bottled teas always seems to be a challenge. These Sweet Leaf varieties aren't too sweet; they're nicely balanced and really quaffable. Superb on a very noisy summer day, anyway.