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American Tea: an Oxymoron?

November 2006
American Tea: an Oxymoron?

I vividly remember my first encounter with American tea. It was at a diner. I asked for tea and was served a freezing, brown liquid in a tall glass into which a straw was immersed. Watching my mystified look, a classmate explained, "That's iced tea."

That was my lesson in American Tea 101.

Slowly, I mastered the art of ordering tea. "Hot tea, please," I learned to say, except my "t" always sounded like a "d" so that I had to repeat myself several times.

I learned that if I did not specify Lipton or English Breakfast black tea, I would be served hot water steeped with a grass-like substance and laced with lemon.

I never adapted to the idea of herbal tea, but over time, I learned to elaborate, "With milk and sugar, please."

Soon, I became nostalgic for Indian tea. Tea out of green and red boxes, aptly named Green Label and Red Label, and boiled with milk and sugar. Tea drunk at 10 p.m. the night before final exams to squeeze that extra ounce of energy out of my numb brain. Tea served in quaint English cups and poured into saucers prior to loud slurping. Tea into which Parle Glucose Biscuits were dipped for morning breakfast. Tea drunk on rainy afternoons while watching raindrops sliding down waxy banana leaves. Tea sipped in India Coffee House to the accompaniment of bhajias or dosas.

After four years of tea deprivation in America, when I went to live in New Zealand, I discovered that the one compensation for living Down Under was that people actually knew how to drink tea.

At 10 a.m. sharp, a tea cart rolled into the hallway of the office where I worked, as engineers gathered around to chat. Tea was served out of a large pot, brewed freshly by the Tea Lady, whose sole responsibility was to keep us in tea. There were biscuits, of course, and an occasional cake for someone's departure.

There was no need to run down to the cafeteria, no frantic rush to feed coins into machines, no necessity to plug the electric kettle into the power strip and later panic while one sat in a quickly hustled meeting wondering if the unattended kettle was burning the office down.

It was decidedly a civilized way to live!

The entire ceremony was repeated in the afternoon as we stood around the tea cart, looking out the windows at Auckland Harbor, and sharing bits of our personal lives.

Every office in New Zealand had a kitchen, fully equipped with a refrigerator, a stove, and other amenities, so that, in addition to the tea service, employees could also enjoy making lunches.

Traveling around New Zealand, one always came upon a tea room by the roadside, where tiered racks of cakes sat on tables adorned with lace. Tea was poured into china cups out of stainless steel pots brewing leaves and mixed with milk out of spouted containers and sugar out of bowls.

Ah! Such was the joy of tea!

They had none of that American artlessness of a Styrofoam cup handed to you with the lid already on and a tea bag placed on top, as if you planned to eat it with the hot water!

When I left New Zealand, I brought with me my precious steel teapot. I still make my morning tea in it, and wonder what I would do if one day it were to disappear.

Thirty years after my arrival in this country, Americans have still not learned to drink proper tea.

As if to add insult to the injury, now we have the Starbucks phenomenon, in which ostentatious servers give you a spiel about your tea choices of the day, as if engaged in some centuries-old Japanese tea ceremony, while you stand by, thinking, "Give me the darn tea and spare me the lecture." What comes out at the other end of the transaction is no different than what you get at a diner, except that it costs more. There is still the paper cup with the lid already affixed and the milk and the sugar are still sitting in a far corner. But at least Starbucks and Pete's have learned to put the tea bag into the water, sparing you the inevitability of scalding your hands while trying to take the top off.

When I offer people tea at my house, the first question I am asked is, "Do you make chai tea?" prompting me to comment sarcastically that chai means tea so what they are really asking is, "Do you make tea tea?" which makes no sense.

There is the common misperception among Americans that all Indians drink chai at home, which in their minds is tea brewed with spices. Alas, I explain to them, this is not the case. In my home and in most homes in Maharashtra, tea was always served with just milk and sugar unless one had a cold, in which case our mothers would add ginger to it.

I know Americans dumped tea into the Boston Harbor to get free of British tyranny. But did they have to make such a point of forgetting how to drink tea?


Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com.

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