In a much-needed break from all the pain of the current national tragedy of government, let’s take tea together. Virtually speaking, of course. Because in the UK, it’s Afternoon Tea Week!
That means we need to talk tea, for at least a little bit. Almost as good as drinking tea is talking (or reading) about it. Just Saturday, I had a nice visit with Jack, who is opening Tea & Jam here in Blacksburg, later this month. I saw his van parking as I walked up to the Farmer’s Market Saturday, and stopped to congratulate him on a great article, about his upcoming opening, in the Roanoke paper. We got to visiting about the health benefits of tea (numerous!), and Jack introduced me to a book I just ordered: Cancer Hates Tea. A family member is fighting cancer, and the book seemed timely.
But tea’s healing qualities aren’t just about polyphenols (one of the health-benefiting elements of tea). The magic is also, as tea drinkers know, about quiet. About the ritual of filling the pot (or cup) with boiling water, and taking a moment to let it steep. It’s also about spoiling yourself just a bit, and taking a moment ‘off’ from your daily grind, whatever that may be.
It’s about savouring the fragrance of peach matcha as you stir it, or watching milk cloud a cup of Earl Grey. It’s about a moment when the world stops whirling & settles, for a warm comfy moment, into focus. You, the cup, the tea. The old be here now thing. Almost impossible to achieve with even the best cup of coffee (which I also like, just fyi). Coffee lacks the magic of tea, I confess. And don’t we all need magic these days?
Sometimes folks ask me to ‘recommend’ teas. Unlike Jack, I don’t own a tea shop. More like a tea way station, where I try to bring order to fractious days. At my house, if you’re invited to tea, there will be a black tea (if you’re a newbie tea drinker, probably just a good China black or maybe Earl Grey). And if you’ve told me you don’t drink caffeine, there will be one of the tisanes or fruit teas I often sip in the late afternoon or evening. I’m partial to lemon verbena, or a fruit tea made with mango pieces.
But if you do drink caffeine, I might go with a flavoured or blended black tea. My favourites — especially if you’re adventurous — are Lapsang Souchong, and a blend from Harney’s tea, Victorian London Fog. Despite my younger son’s dismissal of any tea using vanilla, I adore the London Fog tea, which is basically Earl Grey with lavender & a tiny soupçon of vanilla. And of course Lapsang Souchong is smoky & a bit wild. Good for days when it feels you’re being smothered in everyday minutiæ!
There will be a tea tray w/ a tea cloth. Matching cups & tea pot, drawn from the far too many I own (and use!). A complementary creamer & sugar, as I like my black teas w/ both. And a little honey jar, one of 2-3 I have for various tea sets. And of COURSE there will be cookies! Maybe scones, too, if it’s a mid-morning or mid-afternoon tea, where we need more sustenance. Probably ginger scones, unless I made ginger shortbread. (Can you tell how much I love ginger?)
The whole point of shared afternoon tea is just that: sharing. And the nurturing comfort that comes from someone baking something tasty just for you. Of, as M.F.K.Fisher said,
I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.
Tea’s like that. A way to feed people on so many levels. And here’s the best part of this open secret: you can do it for yourself! You can buy a package of tea bags or sachets (it doesn’t have to be loose tea, if that intimidates you, although the ritual of scooping and filling a tea strainer is pleasant!), in whatever flavour you like, and pour boiling water into a cup where the tea bag nestles. Let it brew for a minute or two, and then add what you like. Or nothing at all!
Now: take a deep breath of the healing steam. Let it out. And enjoy your moment of peace & comfort.
This year was a very different Thanksgiving for us. We’re in a new home, in a new (to us!) state, and we tried new things. Like a heritage turkey (mixed reviews), and no sweet potatoes (I missed them!). And bubbly for the drinkers instead of eggnog. And a follow-up brunch at my son & daughter-in-law’s the next morning. Big things, right?
It was a wonderful day. Both of them!
The weather has been gorgeous: crisply autumn, w/ blue skies & honeyed light slanting through the wall of windows. We didn’t need the fire until the evening. The kids were beautifully behaved, and the food was almost as great as the conversation!
So, big things that change, yet don’t: family. My niece, her partner (another niece, to me!), and their roommate joined us. So it was smaller than our usual familial cattle call. Which was kind of nice — I got to actually talk to everyone! But kind of sad, as well: I missed my sisters, and my other nieces & nephews. And their beautiful kiddos.
Other big things that we did differently: since it was a smaller group, we all were able to sit down together. Even though it meant a card table added to the length of our small dining table — who cares, right? With 8 instead of 18, that’s not even an option. So I got to use nice china, sterling, crystal. Show off some linens I rarely use, and the napkins rings we bought in Kenya, before my 2nd son was even born.
And there was a mostly familiar menu: turkey, stuffing (but also dressing), potatoes & gravy, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, broccoli casserole, & homemade macaroni cheese. The usual (for us!) hummus as an appetizer, w/ tortillas griddled on the stove, and veggies too. Tabbouleh. And pumpkin pie w/ too much whipped cream. And my niece’s totally gorgeous cranberry/orange/walnut cupcakes, topped w/ cream cheese icing & candied cranberries.
Did I mention it was totally sumptuous?!
But it was the little things that made it, as well — those things we tend to take for granted, until we move & see them fresh: the way everyone pitched in to help. The weaving of conversations. The laughter of my older grandson with his baby brother. The three dogs racing around the room playing tag. How the house brimmed w/music & happy voices. Watching my younger grandson take baby bites of his first Thanksgiving dinner.
This is what I’m so very grateful for, this year: my amazing family. Both the ones I was able to spend the holiday with and the ones I miss. I hope your day was equally happy!
Yesterday was a son date. Meaning, I had lunch w/ one of my two amazing sons. Earlier this week I had lunch w/ the other. Interesting detail: each picked the same restaurant, a small Asian café we all three like. They always have the pho (a ViệtNamese soup), minus the tendon & tripe. I have any of a number of things — I’m far less predictable in my tastes.
But each time we shared a green papaya salad (a favourite of ours), and talked. The main course, as it were: conversation. Without work, or two grandsons, or other interruptions. Just me & a son, over food. It doesn’t get a lot better…
Too often, we expect love to flourish w/out any nurturing. Or, more likely, we consider the daily things we do for each other to be enough. But really? You can’t have quality time w/out a fair amount of quantity.
Neither son revealed anything earth-shattering. I see them both, in this golden period, frequently. But rarely, as I noted, without the hubbub of daily life as a backdrop. And often — to be fair! — the hubbub takes precedence.
Here’s to time spent with loved ones: friends, family, colleagues. Folks you’d like to know better. Because sharing food, as M.F.K. Fisher said, is about more than just the meal:
It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.
Try it. A date with whomever — I happen to be lucky to have my sons nearby! — over shared food. I promise it’s worth the effort.
The art today is sooo appropriate for someone who’s several poems behind! Breathe, right?? So: Today’s poem is a bit of a riff on the NaPoWriMo prompt, which follows:
Today, I’d like you to write a poem inspired by, or in the form of, a recipe! It can be a recipe for something real, like your grandmother’s lemon chiffon cake, or for something imaginary, like a love potion or a spell.
I thought of a recipe I don’t have — one I’ve looked for a long time — and the poem flowed from there. Enjoy.
Aunt Bonnie’s Apricot Fried Pies
She left me only hunger
No recipes for fried pies
Crisped in the cast-iron skillet
I do have.
For years I searched
Leafing through the musty pages
Of church cookbooks
Women’s auxiliary cookbooks
The recipe cards of family
Looking for what might feed me.
Once I found the key to crust.
Or so I thought: it melted under heat.
Another time I found stewed apricots
Fragrant with their hot sweetness
But what would hold them?
All we have is memory & hunger
And the knowledge that once
Loving hands fed us.
When we moved from our home in Oklahoma last month, we found several boxes tucked away under the eaves. Literally: 6 boxes of stuff. Including five cast-iron skillets, ranging from 5 inches to 10.
True confession: I adore cast-iron. I already have more cast-iron skillets (and a griddle…and a Dutch oven…) than I should admit to. Several were my legacy from my grandmother & great-aunt: what I asked for of their belongings, when Grandma was leaving her own home of decades.
Is there anything of mine you’d like, honey? she asked me. Has anyone asked for your cast-iron pans? I responded. She laughed, and said No, no one’s asked for those. I told her I didn’t want to be greedy, so if someone did, split them up. Otherwise? I wanted them ALL.
And I got them! (Aside: why DIDN’T anyone else want them??)
Then, when my beloved mother-in-law moved out of her home, following my wonderful father-in-law’s death, my sister-in-law asked if there was anything I really wanted. May I have their cast-iron pans? I asked. And I got those too!
Soooo many memories: Grandma frying chicken; Aunt Bonnie making cornbread. Mom cooking bacon, or pancakes, or potato pancakes with the leftover mashed potatoes from the holiday feasts she put together. Every time I use a pan — to scramble eggs, to cook a roast, to make cornbread — I’m visited by those happy ghosts.
So imagine my delight when my beloved hand-carried five HEAVY cast-iron skillets from Oklahoma to Virginia! The catch? They were a MESS. Sticky with gross old seasoning, rusty in spots, scaling on the bottom from decades of baked-on food & grease. YUK! I washed them well, scrubbing as best I could with steel wool. Then dried them on the stove top, as I was taught, and oiled them so they wouldn’t rust any more. At this point my elder son ran off with one, leaving me four.
Enter the Internet. There are a zillion websites discussing the reclamation of cast-iron. The one I ended up using also has a link to seasoning the newly bare cast-iron skillet, following cleaning.
My beloved covered the skillets with heavy-duty Easy Off, as directed. Then stuck them in a black garbage bag overnight. Then scrubbed them HARD. It took another round of Easy Off (that should give you an idea how yukky the skillets were!) to lay bare the lead-grey metal.
We followed the rest of the directions (a vinegar soak for rust, rinse, wash, dry, and a LOT of flax oil), and I put them in the oven to season. Took them out, put on another coat of oil, and back in the oven to polymerise. They are GORGEOUS!!!
Now, you have to be wondering (if not before): what in the name of Julia Child does this have to do with Buddhism??
Everything. But mostly? Love, that’s what. And not giving up on things. And reclaiming what might otherwise be thrown out. And working to make something useful again. And honouring family history. Cooking for people you love with love.
I’m so serious: go rescue a cast-iron pan. See if it doesn’t make you feel incredibly virtuous. Reconnect you with cultures from around the globe, and throughout history. Really — it’s as Buddhist as everyday life gets. Honest.