Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tuesday tea TV: Naked tea

As a brow-furrowed aspiring writer, while a teenager I inevitably found my way to William Burroughs. My relationship with his prose has remained problematic and challenging. I regret having lived so many years within driving distance of Lawrence, Kan., and never making the pilgrimage to his place.

So this caught my eye recently. Many moons ago, the BBC made a good documentary about Burroughs, called "Arena" (watch the whole thing here). Now over at the BBC's Space site, there's a reel of unused footage showing Burroughs in England stopping by for tea with Francis Bacon (the ’60s painter, not the 16th-century statesman). Bacon serves up tea from his drab little kitchen, making it extra strong per Burroughs' taste and adding a bit of milk before the two begin talking about Tangier.

Watch the reel here. Warning: Just be patient. It's a dumb, overly designed web site. You may click through and get the video right away, or you may have to press the elevator button No. 4 and wait for a silly image map to load (the graphics, and their loading speeds, are akin to playing "Myst" on a 1990s Macintosh Performa), then click on the Francis Bacon tea cup. You can watch, but you can't stop, start, pause, share or embed the resulting video. Sigh.

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.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Learning by osmosis

"Mountain water is best," wrote Lu Yu in his still-prized, eighth-century advice for preparing a proper pot of tea. Would that I could dip my ladle into a clear stream, but I was not born into an age (or at least an altitude) where that would be advisable pretty much anywhere on the planet. At home, we must filter out the various age-old natural contaminants and industrial-age pollutants.

Throughout my tea life thus far I've relied on basic filters, mostly of the Brita brand. However, some kind of karma coupon was cashed in recently, and I've moved into a new house equipped with a reverse-osmosis system right there under the kitchen sink.

Safe to say, my tea experience with the super-fine-filtered H20 thus far (good info and diagrams here) has been transformative — both good and bad. I don't claim to know much about the chemistry of tea and water, but experience has taught me that the level of minerals in the source liquid directly affects the taste, color and often odor in the cup. This five-stage filtration I've got now produces a kettle full of water that is seriously free of stray solids. Whereas a Brita filter screens out most visible solids, chlorine and some aromas, reverse osmosis extracts pretty much all minerals from the water.

That's been great for light teas. The herbals and white teas I've brewed here thus far have been nicely flavorful — standing on their own, with a richer mouth feel and no water minerals getting in the way. Greens have been mixed, though many are coming up a bit flat, and black teas swing between the extremes. My morning cup of Rishi China Breakfast is lighter and brighter than ever — a surprisingly good thing, given my penchant for inky-black tea — but my beloved keemuns have wilted without the mineral content, which I'm assuming assists in the spiking of its spicy flavors.

I have not retired my countertop Brita pitcher.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tuesday tea tunes: 'It's All Too Much'

This article likely resonates with any tea lover who's been a bit overwhelmed by the abundance of choices offered by some tea companies. Samovar founder Jesse Jacobs waxes critical of the affordances peculiar to American consumerism. With so much available to us — on tea shelves and elsewhere — we waste energy and focus making trivial decisions. Securing something we like, or at least can live with, creates a habit, which we then cling to with desperate pride. More to the point, I'm often suspect of tea companies that hawk hundreds of varieties and blends instead of a few things they do really well. Quality vs. quantity, etc.

Joe Jackson wrote a song about this very double-edged blade: "It's All Too Much" ...

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Truth in advertising

I never weary of this image, nor of its many variations. Plus, c'mon: tea at the beach! Happy summer ...

Friday, July 19, 2013

Tea's built-in breather

A knowledgeable tea blogger, whose work I read and admire, recently offered a clever post suggesting "8 Things to Do While Your Tea Is Steeping" — check the weather, fold some laundry, decide on dinner, etc. The central question: "How do you make the time pass more quickly while your tea steeps?"

I'd like to throw in another perspective — a ninth suggestion, perhaps, which I contend trumps all others:

Do nothing at all.

If you find yourself fidgety and in need of distraction in the mere two to three minutes during the magical marriage of tea leaves and water, then you really do need a cup of tea. Not for the relaxation that may come from its actual consumption — the warmth, the theanine — but from the lessons that come in the simple act of being still. These moments are a gift, a blessing. They bracket a little bit of peace within the rest of your day. Don't schedule them, seize them. Stand, sit, stare into space.

Hearken back to this splendid post, a wise instruction manual called "How to sit in a chair and drink tea" (which I celebrated earlier), and its crucial observation about the steeping moment: "You will now confront one of modern society’s ever-present dangers, which is the risk of distraction we face whenever nothing interesting happens for a few minutes."

Let nothing interesting happen. Let absolutely nothing happen. Modern life is too much happening. The tea is happening, and that's enough.

From my favorite Kafka aphorism:

Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Teaku No. 15

My new favorite phrase
is 'marine layer.'
Ocean mist like teacup steam.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tuesday tea TV: Comprising coffee

The following video made the rounds in various social-media hand-offs last week. It's from Wired — one of their occasional, interesting analyses of the component parts of everyday stuff. This animated video takes a quick tour through the contents of a cup of coffee ...

What's inside your cup of tea?

Sidestepping the usual mish-mash of hawked health benefits and the seemingly endless discussion of caffeine content, here's one fairly good answer.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The power of the powder

We recently moved across the country, which meant several days shacking up with hospitable, patient family and friends as well as crummy lil' motels. (I once wrote a song called "The Couch Tour," and here we were decades later embodying it.) Translation: My tea regimen was a mess. I'll spare you the kvetching about the perils of in-room coffee makers, friends who don't have kettles, and bloody Lipton bags.

But I'll share a tip I thought I'd shared here before: Rishi's on-the-go matcha and sencha.

I first encountered these through some samples, which proved valuable additives to my music-festival kit bag. As a pop music critic, packing for a three-day fest such as Lollapalooza or the great Pitchfork Music Festival (both in Chicago — the latter occurs this coming weekend with a lively lineup) involved planning for hydration and energy. While a cup of hot tea could be had at Pitchfork and was refreshing even in the scorching summer heat, tea products often are in short supply at such events (though Sweet Leaf has been a frequent Lolla sponsor). But what can you find everywhere at a festival grounds? Bottled water.

Enter Rishi's clever product. Their portable packets of matcha and of powdered sencha tea are midday life savers in such conditions. Pop a bottle of water, take a sip (to free up a little room), empty the small packet of tea powder into the bottle, shake like a MF. Presto — a cool bottle of energizing, invigorating and hydrating tea! Useful in a pinch throughout our moving experience, but invaluable for outdoors afternoons and events.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The episode of the madeleine

Happy birthday, Marcel Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time (or The Remembrance of Things Past, if you must) remains the ultimate novel with tea as the plot's central catalyst.

I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tuesday tea tunes: What happened to you?

Posting this one today obviously not because it's a "winter's day," as the song describes, but for a few other reasons. First, I find myself in the occasional "deserted seaside cafe" now that I've relocated to San Diego. Also, I should be working on a rather sizable research project, yet I find myself doing little more than what Donovan's doing here, sitting and dreaming. Third: tomorrow is Proust's birthday, and here's a tune pretty much all about "a cup of rich brown memories." Here's "Teas" by Donovan ...

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Do as he say

If the stranger say unto thee
That he thristeth
Give him a cup of Tea.
— Confucius

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Civil War made us coffee drinkers

Tea, we know, helped set the American revolution boiling when, in December 1773, as John Adams wrote in his diary, "3 Cargoes of Bohea Tea were emptied into the Sea." He continued, emphasizing the significance of the disobedience: "This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have important Consequences."

Politically, it certainly did. It inspired Jefferson to start writing A Summary View of the Rights of British America, opening a deluge of written grievances and statements of colonial rights reaching its peak in the writings of Thomas Paine and Jefferson's eventual declarative statement.

With tea as a flashpoint for taxation protests, colonists boycotted the beverage — and many of them learned to do without, which may have significantly stunted tea's place in American culture. Even after the War of Independence, tea consumption declined. "The Americans love it very much," Frederika Charlotte Riedesel wrote in her diary, "but they had resolved to drink it no longer, as the famous duty on the tea had occasioned the war."

A document I found recently explains in its title how this became something of an irreversible trend: "Civil War Soldiers Made Coffee America's Drink" by By Fredric C. Lynch.

Eugene Goodwin's Civil War infantry diary mentions both tea and coffee as options in the rations, "which consists of two crackers and a little piece of meat and a pint of tea or coffee for a meal."

Lynch's study starts in 1832, when President Jackson ordered coffee and sugar added to daily soldier rations and follows an interesting course through coffee's winning properties during wartime — including an army cook named William McKinley, later elected president, and the monument built to honor not his political service but his front-line coffee service — and the habit the soldiers took back home with them.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Tuesday Tea Tunes: The other side of history

For our annual reflection on tea's role in the birth of this nation, please to enjoy this narrative tale of the "Boston Tea Party" from Scottish rockers the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, circa mid-’70s.