Monday, March 15, 2010

A Cuppa Culture

My day began pre-dawn with an unwelcome surprise: my morning tea tasted well, terrible. Bitter. Acid. Goblin tasting, bad enough to roil both my tummy and my well-being.

This, friends, is a rarity. I make great tea, and drink it by the gallons. The current choice for normal life is a decaf Earl Grey, sweetened just so, and cooled in the fridge.

Before heading for bed, I'd filled up the kettle, tidied up the kitchen, and made myself a "good morning" present--a fresh pitcher of tea, second shelf in the fridge, ready to go to fuel my day. Want bliss? Leave yourself a pitcher of fresh iced tea for your toast to the rising sun.

Instead, I'm drinking plain water--health-wise, not a bad thing--and meditating on the wonders, and importance of tea. When I think of tea, of course, I first think of having a "cuppa," the great British preoccupation with putting the kettle on and having some tea.

It's the great national cure-all and pepper-upper. Had a hard day? Have a cuppa. Worrying a bit? Have a cuppa. The Queen does, after all.

And then there's the importance of tea in America's Revolutionary War (sorry, England, but George III was a loony). The Boston Tea Party, where a statement about taxes and sovereignty sent a shipment of tea into the harbor, made the world's largest cuppa and stirred the course of the world's history.

Tea is not only tea, it's comfort, sharing, and culture. I'm multi-cultural, not only because of my Native American heritage (three tribes) but because of the other cultures woven though my life.

Along with the heritage of those three tribes, my cultural and blood inheritances trace back to European family that arrived in this country in the early 1600's and into the early 1700's, and before that, back to the 900's. Surviving a miserable, perilous sea journey, they set out in a strange, primitive new world.

And I'm sure they all drank tea of some sort: Native American willow bark cures, or the international flavor of special blends from Ceylon. The history of tea travels the world, bearing more than a few cuppas of stories.

And then there's the great cultural divide here in America: northern and southern. When I think of iced tea, the second thing I think of is great Southern sweet iced tea, the nectar of the gods.

Teasing your lips and tongue, trickling down your throat on a hot summer day, sweet iced tea is the ultimate addiction. Super-charged with not only caffeine but enough sugar to sink those ships in Boston Harbor, the power of that iced tea has gotten many a field plowed with only a cranky mule, and greased the wheels of delicate (but often deadly) social interactions over china in the parlor.

Sweet iced tea, done well (and I do it very very well) is what I call a deep-dish Southern icon, a part of down-home life so intrinsic that it's only noted when it's missing, or the cauldron brew doesn't turn out just right. In Boston in the 1970's, during a bitter winter snow storm, I astounded, and perhaps horrified, the hotel waiter by asking for iced tea for breakfast. They didn't do that, he informed me. (Solution: order tea and a glass of ice.)

Which brings us to my own personal cultural divide, that of north vs. south. My mother's family is solid rock Yankee, New England style Puritans that arrived here in 1630, helped to found Boston, and then moved on to my early childhood home, upstate New York.

Did I say Puritan? That family heritage makes Cotton Mather and his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sound like a hysterical drama queen. No need to carry on (Southernism) that way and waste all that breath and words.

Just get up and get back to work. Work hard, and harder. Do it right, and then do it righter. No whining. What's right is right, and you know what it is.

You get the idea. No indulgence in sweetened iced tea there. Nope, black coffee before busting rocks, milk, water, and oh yes, medicinal amounts of whiskey. How to cure a cold: mix warm whiskey, honey, lemon, go to bed, wrap up and sweat it out before you go back to work.

Meanwhile,the deep dish Southern life of my father's family requires well-sugared iced tea, morning, noon, and night. Sure, well-sugared coffee is great for breakfast (although I prefer tea), but to amble through your day, a little work, a little swinging on the front porch, requires sweet tea.

Keep it on hand for all the emergencies that require the great Southern cure-all: lie down and put your feet up. If you have a disappointment, or get all het up, then it's time to lie down and put your feet up.

If the crisis is serious, then a supporter in your hour of need will bring you a cold wet cloth for your forehead. (The three levels of Southern crisis are: lie down and put your feet up, lie down and put your feet up and put a cold cloth on your forehead, and take to your bed.)

You can see the cultural divide here: the Yankees sweat it out silently and get back to work. The Southerners convene a Greek chorus of supporters and well-wishers offering advice and cold cloths, talk and tsk-tsking, and lots of time with your feet up. (There's a reason why I have an authentic Victorian fainting sofa in my living room.)

Which is why I'm taking to my bed. The sun's still not up, I don't have any sweet iced tea, the disappointment is great, and there's no good reason not to go back to bed and put my feet up.

Could you get me a cold cloth for my forehead, please?

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