The following story is true, I swear. Those of you who like milk in your tea may appreciate it.
Although I grew up in the suburbs of northern California, for weird reasons I spent my 10th grade year – 5th form, for you Brits – at an English boarding school. Having never traveled out of the country before this, it took a while to get used to some of the cultural differences. For example, there was the time I was in the library and the handsome lad sitting across from me leaned over and asked, “Have you got a rubber?” Another of these cultural differences was the fact that in most places, when you ordered tea, it came already adulterated with a pre-measured amount of milk (or cream, if you were lucky.) Not my cup of tea!
Unlike the typical school day in sunny California, at this school there was Low Tea. High Tea was supper; but Low Tea came after classes let out at 3:45. It consisted of a high energy food fest in the cafeteria. You chose your spot with an eye towards the trajectory of the currant buns, some of which were consumed, but most were lofted about through the room in a frenetic interclass form of tribal warfare.
On each long table there was an enormous metal teapot, with a huge stainless steel infusion ball full of loose-leaf black tea from an indeterminate source (did we care? No!). Also on the table was a gigantic metal jug of partially-congealed bovine mammary fluid passed off as milk. You grabbed your clunky stoneware “straight-from-a-roadside-diner” mug as you entered the cafeteria, made for your seat, poured yourself a cup, adulterated it as preferred with the milk – or not, in my case – grabbed a bun if there were any left, and sat back to watch the show. All manner of adolescent vibe expressed itself there at the end of the day: buns launched here and there; flirting; sarcasm; quiet smoldering; and an infusion of badly needed blood sugar.
And then came The Rebellion.
We didn’t really have a lot of reasons to rebel: the school was “progressive;” we didn’t have to wear uniforms; the masters listened to us by and large; and we had a lot of freedom. Most students felt lucky to be there. But we were young, bright, full of energy and it was the early 70’s. Plus the food was, by and large, awful. And then there was the milk.
The milk came, as noted, in a huge metal pitcher, which was filled for morning tea and apparently left out for the day, to be used at each mealtime (sometimes it was leftover from the day before…and maybe longer). By the time Low Tea rolled around, you could see the high tide line around the rim, congealing in a green-yellow ring. Clots floated in the contents. You could see the successive tide lines as the volume was lowered. Since no one ever actually drank the milk by itself, using it only to adulterate their tea, no one made too much of a fuss about it. There were other issues – like suppers of Spaghetti-os and Spam – that seemed more pressing. You could ignore the clotted milk if you drank your tea fast enough. Still, it was a common refrain around the table: “Eww, snot rings in the jug again!” Once, somebody actually blew their nose into the jug, just to see if we could tell the difference (barely).
I was part of a loyal group of four friends who were considered “mature” by students, house and teaching staff alike. We had even earned ourselves the best room in the dorms for one term (unbeknownst to the housing staff, we considered it the best because of its proximity to a back stairway that was easy to sneak down and then out of the house at night.) We were the kids who would diplomatically discuss “problems” and “issues,” rather than throw tantrums, act out or get into real trouble. We never got caught. So when the congealing milk issue came to a head, we were called upon by the other kids to raise the issue.
We adored the cooking staff; they were migrants from the Canary Islands who spoke little English, but often found ways to joke with us and give us treats once in a while. On the other hand, the English women serving the food and putting the milk out were hags: often making snide comments and shorting our plates, and there was no love lost between us. Still, you do what you have to do. My best friend Melanie and I approached the head server (I think her name was Maude, but everyone called her Mud, even to her face), milk jug in hand for visual affirmation. Very politely, because we were sincere in our quest, we showed her the jug and asked if it would be possible to put fresh milk in clean jugs from this point on. I think I might have invoked the power of “the letter home,” but not in a threatening way . . . at least not very. There was complete silence throughout the cafeteria.
The response? Out came a stream of cockney invective I couldn’t understand word for word, something about “ingratitude”, causing a “scene”, and something about how no one had died yet, “had they?”
Thus, the Rebellion.
Silently, we turned our backs on Mud, and made our way back to the table. Without a word, we each picked up a jug, our friends joining us. Making our way back to the kitchen counter, we dumped the milk all over the counter, chanting “No more rotten milk!” The cafeteria roared behind us.
It was a mess. Needless to say, kids ran around yelling and making things worse. Staff were called in from their own tea break, and students were herded out of the room. But, they didn’t call us the “mature” kids for nothing: the four of us stayed behind, after being handed mops, rags and buckets, and cleaned the whole bloody mess. The cooking staff silently helped us, grins on their faces— and as we left, a few extra buns made it into our pockets.
Melanie and I had a long talk with the Headmaster; a bargain was struck involving an apology and some severely curtailed leisure time. From that point on, no more snot-rings in the jugs. But I notice, after visiting the school’s website recently, that there is no more Low Tea there, either.
This post was written by Anne Lerch. It originally appeared on the blog November 15, 2007.