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Plate of the union: The tea party manifesto
“But still, how can you call yourself a true tea lover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt.” Challenge accepted, Mr. Orwell.
Even before the Briton wrote “A Nice Cup of Tea,” setting down 11 golden rules that haughty baristas now take as the word of God, earls and emperors declared the proper way to pour water over a spoonful of bitter leaves.
So when I found myself this Easter break in quite possibly the most pretentious teashop in all of Manhattan, I decided to fly in the face of British prescriptivism. Sure, Orwell wields the cultural capital and literary genius to lead the hipster masses in their quest for the perfect cup of organic matcha, but sometimes I like sugar in my tea, and George will have none of that.
Looking at the open barrels of tea and herbs, I was determined to do everything backwards. Orwell’s first rule: “One should use Indian or Ceylonese tea.” Instead, I poured a scoop of Chinese oolong into the small pouch that an aspiring screenwriter-turned-daytime-tea-master handed me. As for the flavorings, salt? Absolutely. I threw in a spoonful of some dusty lavender-infused crystals. Pepper? Of course. A pinch of pink peppercorns joined the bag along with a few dried chilies. To top it all off, I blended in some cocoa and cardamom. The spicy tea was delicious, and it was born to be drunk with sugar. As I walked out of the teashop, I imagined Orwell sadly shaking his head.
By trying to combat presumptuous tea making prescriptions, I had amazingly one-upped the British writer in pretentiousness. Loose leaf tea isn’t snobbish in itself. In fact, it’s often cheaper than buying a box of bagged tea, and you can steep it multiple times before tossing the leaves. But no one sane—or on a student’s budget—saunters into TriBeCa teashops to craft their own loose-leaf blends. My tea obsession had gone too far.
You see, I started drinking tea in eighth grade just after the D.A.R.E. team came to my school. They terrified me, and not about the dangers of tobacco or alcohol. As an innocently aloof middle schooler, I didn’t even know what marijuana looked like until they showed the class a picture. While D.A.R.E. aimed to win the War on Drugs, all they did was scare me away from coffee. “It’s a drug!” they warned. “America is addicted to it. Your parents are addicted to it. You could be addicted to it!”
So when all the cool kids walked to the Coffee Bean after school, I ordered tea instead. Of course, most teas are caffeinated as well, but D.A.R.E. didn’t plaster pictures of the world’s second most popular drink next to distressed addicts. I still don’t understand why the program spent so much time vilifying coffee, but it certainly did the trick—I consistently pull all-nighters in Lau without a single drop of espresso.
But the price of loving tea is far worse than the headache coffee addicts get after missing their morning cup. Tea drinkers may start out slurping Lipton from a tall plastic glass at Leo’s, but after a while we all start to sound like George Orwell.
It didn’t take me long to realize I had become that person, the one who brings her own ceramic mug and tea strainer to Uncommon Grounds. Yet tea drinkers don’t even need to carry around satchels of organic Moroccan ginger loose leaf to appear ridiculous. A philosophy professor recently shot down my tea-cred as he pointed at my mug and declared, “Need builds thrones!” Holding up his styrofoam cup with a green tea bag dipped inside, he invoked Rousseau to declare the superiority of his no-frills drink. Apparently the more complicated my tea needs get, the more I’m losing out in the quest for authenticity.
Coffee aficionados get testy with their brewing techniques, but tea brings the moralizing out in people because it’s inextricably tied to ritual. Whether it’s the Japanese tea ceremony, British high tea, or Kashmiri noon chai, there is a right way to enjoy the drink. It just has less to do with whether or not you take sugar, and more to do with culture and habit. Orwell codified his personal tea ceremony, as have I. Only mine includes steeping the third cup as I watch the sun rise from Lau four.
Have a spot of tea with Heather at email@example.com