I always wondered why my mother was such a disciplined, unenthusiastic diner, until one day when she showed me a family photo of ancient origin that gave me a clue. To put it kindly, in her youth, my mother was more than just “pleasingly” plump.
Mother’s lack of gustatory enthusiasm extended to cooking; she hated it! The exception was the brewing of tea, for which she’d acquired a taste while spending a year in England between the two World Wars as an exchange student.
As far as Mother was concerned, there was only one type of pot suitable for brewing tea, dark brown English stoneware. The interior of the pot was never cleaned other than by sloshing it with boiling water. This procedure probably made sense in the days before detergents, when soaps tended to be sticky and the residue left behind could adversely affect the flavor the tea.
According to her rules, the first step in brewing an excellent cup of tea was a properly pre-warmed teapot, which was accomplished by filling the pot with the hottest water you could run out of the tap. If my mother happened to be in her brewmaster mode, she would remind whoever was filling the pot (or would point out if she were doing it herself), “Be sure the hot water extends into the entire spout. So many people overlook the importance of warming the spout.”
The faucet was allowed to run until the water was as cold as possible. Then, the kettle was filled and put on a high flame. Contrary to legend, a watched pot will boil, and the pot would be closely watched until the first sign of a rolling boil was detected, heralding the critical phase of tea brewing, during which lightning speed and superb coordination were required.
Empty the teapot, pour in a half a cup of boiling water, swirl the water up the sides of the pot, and expel. Using a measuring spoon, spoon the loose tea leaves into the pre-warmed teapot, one spoonful of tea per each 5-6 ounces of water, plus one spoonful for the pot. Pour freshly boiled water (when brewing tea, never use anything but freshly boiled water!) over the leaves, stir once around the pot with a spoon, put the lid on the pot, and allow the leaves to steep, undisturbed, for five minutes.
Mother would instruct novices to watch a clock or set a kitchen timer, but she didn’t require any reminders. She could tell by its fragrance when the tea had reached the optimum flavor she desired. Another single swirl with the spoon, a moment or two for the leaves to settle, and the perfectly brewed tea was ready to be poured.
Presented with the options, my mother would have been hard pressed to choose between drinking teabag-infused lukewarm water out of a Styrofoam cup, or dying of thirst. To her, drinking tea out of anything but porcelain or fine bone China totally negated the care that had gone into brewing the tea in the first place. Through the years, as her collection of cups and saucers, gleaned from odds and ends of long forgotten dinner sets declined even further into ugly, mismatched crockery, I made a point, whenever I was in a store with a housewares department, of looking for cups and saucers she might enjoy.
I had no success until I found some mugs that weren’t as solid as most. I thought possibly, over time, Mother might find them acceptable. When I presented them to her, she offered in reply her mantra by which the proper drinking vessels for tea were to be judged. I asked her to turn the mug over; clearly incised into the pottery were the words, “Made in England”.
“They’re not exactly what I’m used to, but since they’re English,” she allowed reluctantly, “they’re probably intended for tea.”
On a cold rainy evening a few weeks later, I stopped by for a visit. I was delighted when Mother made tea for us and served it in the mugs; but what really pleased me was to see the comfortable familiarity with which she curled her fingers around the new mug. “You know”, she said, “a cup and saucer don’t make nearly as satisfactory a hand warmer.”