Taking Tea with Gordon Lish

Ready? I take my tea bag (or you take your teaspoon), one bag or one spoon for each five ounces of water, which is cold when I start and boiling up a rumpus before I pour, which I do, into a teapot that’s already hot, which condition of temperature is crucial.

 

So I pour furiously boiling water into good and hot teapot over bags or over loose tea or over bags or over tea bomb, slam top down, wrap entire business in dish towel, which is what I saw my mother do during the blizzard of ’46 and it made a tremendous impression on me, she being my mother and all. I understand some people are willing to buy a tea cosy—but, so far as I’m concerned, you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

 

Anyhow, it sits for five minutes—you know, it steeps. If the waiting makes you edgy, go fold some paper bags. The next step is the last step, which is to hurry up and divide the product from its makings. Well, truth to tell, there is one more step—but that’s drinking it, drinking tea—which is a step I’m going to get around to, all in good time. When coffee scoots up over a sawbuck a can.

From Gordon Lish’s 1977 piece in The New York Times, “A Teaser on Tea, with a Footnote on Bags.” By way of context for that last line: the price of coffee soared in 1977 after a harsh freeze killed Brazilian crops. High coffee prices led to a coffee boycott. And tea drinking.

Coffee or tea? (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon)

Mason is trying to wake up. The nearest coffee is in the cook-tent. “Pray you,” he whispers, “try not to be so damn’d,— did I say damn’d? I meant so fucking chirpy all the time, good chap, good chap,” stumbling out of the Tent trying to get his Hair into some kind of Queue. The Coffee is brew’d with the aid of a Fahrenheit’s Thermometer, unmark’d save at one place, exactly halfway between freezing and boiling, at 122°, where upon the Wood a small Arrow is inscrib’d, pointing at a Scratch across the glass Tube. ’Tis at this Temperature that the water receives the ground Coffee, the brew being stirr’d once or twice, the Pot remov’d from the fire, its Decoction then proceeding. Tho’ clarifying may make sense in London, out here ’tis a luxury, nor are there always Egg-shells to hand. If tasted early, Dixon has found, the fine suspended matter in the coffee lends it an undeniable rustick piquance. Later in the Pot, the Liquid charring itself toward Vileness appeals more to those looking for bodily stimuli,— like Dixon, who is able to sip the most degradedly awful pot’s-end poison and yet beam like an Idiot, “Mm-m m! Best Jamoke west o’ the Alleghenies!”— a phrase Overseer Barnes utters often, tho’ neither Surveyor quite understands it, especially as the Party are yet east of the Alleghenies. Howbeit, at this point in a Pot’s life-cycle, Mason prefers to switch over to Tea, when it is Dixon’s turn to begin shaking his head.

“Can’t understand how anyone abides that stuff.”

“How so?” Mason unable not to react.

“Well, it’s disgusting, isn’t it? Half-rotted Leaves, scalded with boiling Water and then left to lie, and soak, and bloat?”

“Disgusting? this is Tea, Friend, Cha,— what all tasteful London drinks,— that,” pollicating the Coffee-Pot, is what’s disgusting.”

“Au contraire,” Dixon replies, “Coffee is an art, where precision is all,— Water-Temperature, mean particle diameter, ratio of Coffee to Water or as we say, CTW, and dozens more Variables I’d mention, were they not so clearly out of thy technical Grasp,— ”

“How is it,” Mason pretending amiable curiosity, “that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?”

Dixon shrugs. “You must improve your Speed . . . ? As to the other, why aye, only the first Cup’s any good, owing to Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance, entirely absent from thy sunlit World of Tay,— whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”

“Folly,” gapes Mason. “Why, ev’ry cup of Tea is perfect . . . ?”

“For what? curing hides?”

From chapter 48 of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon.

Mystic Allegory or Tea — Maurice Denis

Morning Tea — Vladimir Makovsky

“Moral Effects of Tea-Tasting” (From Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds)

Moral Effects of Tea-Tasting.

The long-continued use of tea has a distinct effect upon the character. This has been too often noticed and remarked to be questioned. There are tea-sots in every great charitable institution – particularly those for the maintenance of the aged. Their symptoms are generally mental irritability, muscular tremors, and sleeplessness. The following is an account of one of the cases observed. The immediate effects upon him are as follows: In about ten minutes the face becomes flushed, the whole body feels warm and heated and a sort of intellectual intoxication comes on, much the same in character, it would seem, as that which occurs in the rarefied air of a mountain. He feels elated, exhilarated, troubles and cares vanish, everything seems bright and cheerful, his body feels light and elastic, his mind clear, his ideas abundant, vivid, and flowing fluently into words. At the end of an hour’s tasting a slight reaction begins to set in; some headache comes on, the face feels wrinkled and shrivelled, particularly about the eyes, which also get dark under the lids. At the end of two hours this reaction becomes firmly established, the flushed warm feeling has passed off, the hands and feet are cold, a nervous tremor comes on, accompanied with great mental depression. And he is now so excitable that every noise startles him; he is in a state of complete unrest; he can neither walk nor sit down, owing to his mental condition, and he settles into complete gloom. Copious and frequent urinations are always present, as also certain dyspeptic symptoms, such as eructations of wind, sour taste, and others. His mental condition is peculiar. He lives in a state of dread that some accident may happen to him; in the omnibus fears a collision; crossing the street, fears that he will be crushed by passing teams; walking on the sidewalks, fears that a sign may fall, or watches the eaves of houses, thinking that a brick may fall down and kill him; under the apprehension that every dog he meets is going to bite the calves of his legs, he carries an umbrella in all weathers as a defence against such an attack.

Conclusion of the foregoing.

From Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds.