Thursday, July 25, 2013

'T for Texas, tea for Trinity'

Food writer Mark Brown recently shared this missive with me. Mark publishes Argentfork, a spiffy and insightful occasional food ’zine, and his new book, My Mother Is a Chicken, is out now and highly recommended. Mark is a longtime friend and former editor of mine, and part of our bond exists in the way we both approach and write about food and drink — from a highly subjective New Journalism perspective (narrative, literary, occasionally gonzo) rather than mere objectivity and lists of ingredients.

The following is a preview of an upcoming Argentfork piece, in which Mark mixes the Holy Spirit, Morrissey and stately Buck Mulligan within a simple cup of tea:

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me,” said C.S. Lewis, a man prone to saying memorable things. I, too, like my tea (and my books) when time and circumstance allow for it. I like it at 4 o’clock, tea time, because by then it’s too late for coffee and too early for wine. Tea, then, is a bridge over troubled waters.

Lewis, in Mere Christianity, wades carefully into the sticky wicket of the Trinity, the doctrine that puts God in a threes company. To see an Oxford scholar wrestle with the concept (or at least how to explain his grappling) offers me strange assurance. “And now, for a few minutes,” Lewis writes, “I must ask you to follow rather carefully.”

He then heads off on a very heady theory that it was God who desired not our allegiance but our love, Christ who came to prove the point, and the Holy Spirit that (to me, it is still a that) inspired the soon-to-be-martyrs long after Christ physically left them, at the behest of God. Lewis refers to this Spirit “rising up in us.” The body is the vessel for the Spirit, but it takes more than flesh and blood for the body to become suited to the task of conveyance.

Lewis uses a cube to make his point: It takes a line, then lines, to make a square, and more lines to make a cube. You can’t simply begin with a cube, yet its far less inspiring to imagine a line without also seeing a square and at least envisioning a cube. Thinking out of the box about a box, as it were.

But cubes leave me rather empty, and my mind kept wondering back to Lewis’ tea comment. I thought, if you could make the cup large enough, you could almost imagine the Trinity in a cup of tea. After all, what did I really know about tea other than it grew on trees, and of milk than it came from mammals, and of sugar that it be from cane. (Or, for you honeyed lot, flowers and bees.)

As always, from the outset of such treks, I knew very little.

Tea blossoms in the poorer parts of the world—along the equator, like coffee and chocolate—and stains the cups of empires. It grows at high elevations, and the trees themselves would grow to great heights if left alone. Instead, they are trimmed waist high to allow for easier cultivation. The higher the elevation, the slower the growing season and the more mature the flavor of the leaf.

After tea is picked, it is set aside to ferment. As the leaves die and the chlorophyll fades, rich tannins emerge. Thankfully, somebody somewhere sometime had the foresight to pour water onto the shriveled stuff. Bracing, somewhat bitter, the definition of astringent, tea is a flavor too easily assumed, particularly to a mouth (like mine) raised on iced tea. It is a mouth-filling flavor, capable of impacting memory. Tea is the miracle leaf that, when steeped, unlocks secret passages.

You could stop there, but most do not. The English, for instance. They gave us the time—4 in the afternoon—and the ritual, of drinking tea with cakes and crumpets and other sweet things. In fact, “tea” now stands as much for the meal consumed around it. From English director Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing, another classic Leigh take on family dysfunction:

What’s for tea?
Chicken and vegetable pies.
Want a biscuit?
You all right?

Mostly, though, I think of the English as the brilliant ones who mixed in the milk and sugar. I can barely imagine tea without it, in spite of how blasphemous this must sound to some. But remember, this is my metaphor. Or, as Lewis wrote apologetically, “I am doing the best I can.”

I’ll still drink iced tea on occasion, and it offers its own reward. With the heat of late spring pouring on, I drank a very refreshing iced Irish breakfast tea at Chimera. But iced is not tea-tea, only a nice alternative to soda. Which leads us naturally to sugar.

I use about two cubes per cup, though I don’t use cubes. I just eyeball it. Strangely, when I spoon, I picture the sugar that used to silt in the bottom of my cereal bowl. Spooning sugar is such child’s play. I found some sugar cubes in a box in the cupboard and couldn’t remember where they’d come from, meaning, why I’d bought them. I dip my sugar from a container where is buried, somewhere in the midst, a whole vanilla bean.

Sugar could seem an indulgence in tea, or an essential. It’s not natural that one would sugar tea, but time has married the two elements. For the same reasons my mouth craves dessert after meat and salad, it requires a sugared, if not sugary, tea. You could leave well enough alone, but you’d be missing the moment that ordains when tea and sugar meet. The sugar melts into the freshly brewed tea, and the two rally into one.

Sugar acts in sweet relief to the astringent raw product, filing its edges while deepening its flavor. Sugar sweetens the pot. Or better, honey, itself no mean miracle.

Milk appears to do little more than whiten the brown-black beverage, but there is more at work than meets the eye. The milk stream cuts to the cup’s bottom where it circles back, rising up to at first cloud the drink—in smaller versions of cumulonimbus, I have noticed—but in time to envelope it. From the darkness emerges a new tone, a warm, familiar color you learn by repetition. (In time, you recognize the flavor, with your eyes; that is, without tasting.) In the mouth, the once-bitter brew — even caustic to some tongues — takes on another flavor, a newer profile. The milk has a way of enriching the tea and fortifying it, adding a new nature but playing subservient to the origin that begat all of this steeping and stirring and sipping.

That is to say, it is still tea, in taste and substance and effect, and yet the milk and sugar have embellished its raw power with a genuinely tasty, mysteriously inspired savor. As if the three were conceived to be taken together, or at least function better than when apart. I stopped eating raw sugar as a child, and I won’t drink a glass of milk to save me. But, in tea, they soothe me.

Visually, if not precisely, the tea and milk emulsify, not as solidly as oil and vinegar but at least as visually. You pour the milk and it disappears for a second before emerging in a roiling cloud—a tempest in a teacup, but not. A little stir and there you have it: The eye now sees one. “Emulsify” is from the Latin emulsus: “to milk out.”

Morrissey, a man used to serenading his admirers even as they peel the clothes from his body, believes in the calming effects of tea, to the tune of four pots a day.

“I absolutely never get sick of drinking tea,” he told an interviewer with KROQ way back when. “It’s a psychological thing really, it’s just very composing and makes me relax.”

In those days — Your Arsenal-era, about — it used not to be tea without milk. Morrissey was adamant on this point. “You have to use real milk, you can’t use the UHT fake stuff. You have to use proper milk.” Over the years, Moz seems to have softened his stance. In a recent BBC interview with Victoria Wood, he drank a very weak Ceylon in his cup, and minus the milk. But his ideas on tea remain stout. “I think it was very British, and part of the British resolve and the reason why Hitler really couldn’t get us was because of tea, and nothing else.”

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