Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens On Tea

As regular readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of Christopher Hitchens. His death, although not unexpected, is still something of a shock. The IQ of the planet has certainly diminished a few notches. There's a nice piece on Hitch in the New York Times here, a collection of his Vanity Fair pieces here, and his editor at Slate has put together some of her favourite pieces, here. 
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I think my favourite Hitch moment was his savaging of the SDP politican Shirley Williams on Question Time following her mealy mouthed response to a question about Salman Rushdie's knighthood. His TV appearances alone would secure his place in the history of our culture. If you do go a hunting let me recommend a series of clips called HitchSlap which a youtuber has compiled of Hitch's more ascerbic moments...
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And courtesy of Slate Magazine here is his lovely essay (a tribute to his hero Orwell) on the making of the perfect cup of tea:

Now that "the holidays"—at their new-style Ramadan length, with the addition of Hanukkah plus the spur and lash of commerce—are safely over, I can bear to confront the moment at their very beginning when my heart took its first dip. It was Dec. 8, and Yoko Ono had written a tribute to mark the 30th anniversary of the murder of her husband. In her New York Timesop-ed, she recalled how the two of them would sometimes make tea together. He used to correct her method of doing so, saying, "Yoko, Yoko, you're supposed to first put the tea bags in, and then the hot water." (This she represented as his Englishness speaking, in two senses, though I am sure he would actually have varied the word order and said "put the tea bags in first.") This was fine, indeed excellent, and I was nodding appreciatively, but then the blow fell. One evening, he told her that an aunt had corrected him. The water should indeed precede the bags. "So all this time, we were doing it wrong?" she inquired. "Yeah," replied our hero, becoming in that moment a turncoat to more than a century of sturdy Liverpool tradition.
I simply hate to think of the harm that might result from this. It is already virtually impossible in the United States, unless you undertake the job yourself, to get a cup or pot of tea that tastes remotely as it ought to. It's quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate. The drink itself is then best thrown away, though if swallowed, it will have about the same effect on morale as a reading of the memoirs of President James Earl Carter.

Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do—and still does if you buy a proper tin of it). Would you consider, in either case, pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing the grounds or the leaves on top? I thought not. Try it once, and you will never repeat the experience, even if you have a good strainer to hand. In the case of coffee, it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point? But ground beans are heavier and denser, and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter.
Just after World War II, during a period of acute food rationing in England, George Orwell wrote an article on the making of a decent cup of tea that insisted on the observing of 11 different "golden" rules. Some of these (always use Indian or Ceylonese—i.e., Sri Lankan—tea; make tea only in small quantities; avoid silverware pots) may be considered optional or outmoded. But the essential ones are easily committed to memory, and they are simple to put into practice.
If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: "[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours." This isn't hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.
It's not quite over yet. If you use milk, use the least creamy type or the tea will acquire a sickly taste. And do not put the milk in the cup first—family feuds have lasted generations over this—because you will almost certainly put in too much. Add it later, and be very careful when you pour. Finally, a decent cylindrical mug will preserve the needful heat and flavor for longer than will a shallow and wide-mouthed—how often those attributes seem to go together—teacup. Orwell thought that sugar overwhelmed the taste, but brown sugar or honey are, I believe, permissible and sometimes necessary.
Until relatively few years ago, practically anything hot and blackish or brackish could be sold in America under the name of coffee. It managed both to be extremely weak and extremely bitter, and it was frequently at boiling point, though it had no call to be. (I use the past tense, though there are many places where this is still true, and it explains why free refills can be offered without compunction.) At least in major cities, consumers now have a better idea how to stick up for themselves, often to an irksome degree, as we know from standing behind people who are too precise about their latte, or whatever it's called.
Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don't be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It's not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience. Don't trouble to thank me. Happy New Year.

30 comments:

adrian mckinty said...

I like this one where he discusses the possibility of a death bed conversion:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_R-SjC3lTWk

adrian said...

Some classic Hitchens badassery, here.

speedskater42k said...

Thanks for your comments about C. Hitchens.

On the topic of tea:

I've passed on Orwell's rules to many over the years.

By the way, your post missed a very important point. Tea is a beverage made from a certain plant, camellia sinensis. There's black tea, green tea, oolong tea, all of which come from this same plant. The plant has no raspberry in it. It has no orange in it. It has no chamomile in it. Anything made without camillia sinensis isn't tea. It might be a beverage made by a combining hot water with a plant, but it's not tea.

When one makes the mistake of ordering tea in the US, one often is presented with a beautiful padded wooden box with a selection of bags "tea." Out of the many bags, one or two might be palatable. Many of those bags aren't even tea.

Twice, I've had tea prepared in the US correctly. Once, in Boulder. Another time, in Palo Alto. That's it.

My tea of choice is Assam. I buy it by the pound.

I often point out Orwell's comments about sweetening the tea, and that one could achieve a similar result by sweeting hot water. The sugar simply masks the flavor of the tea. Orwell is correct on this point.

Adrian said...

Speedskater

I dont know why people use tea bags at all. French presses are available everywhere are cheap and easy to clean. Raw tea is more economical than tea bags, tastes better and allows you to predict the future.

My choice of variety is Ceylon Orange Pekoe. I'm ok with Darjeeling and Assam although FTGFOP is out of my league.

speedskater42k said...

Adrian, good "English Breakfast" is a blend of Ceylon & Assam. You try mixing your Ceylon w/ some Assam for a change of pace.

I enjoy the smell of Darjeeling tea, but the taste gets boring after a few cups. I really only want Assam. It mixes well w/ milk. It not only helps predict the future, but gives one a sense of satisfaction and contentment.

Also, I'm lucky by knowing the owner of http://www.mayatea.com/ who sells me really nice Assam for a good price. I feel like he's my personal tea vendor.

John McFetridge said...

"His death, although not unexpected, is still something of a shock. The IQ of the planet has certainly diminished a few notches."

Yes. And not just IQ, but the whole idea of rational thinking.

frankie said...

Tea making is a funny business. Doesn't matter what has happened if you put the kettle on for a brew, somehow everything will be alright. I don't drink tea, but I have witnessed the rituals over the years.

Sad news about Hitchens. I have to admit I hadn't heard of him untill I read about him here. The dumb people seem to go on forever.

lil Gluckstern said...

It's sad when a mind like Hitchens' is lost. It wasn't unexpected, but I'm sad, nonetheless. He never failed to wake up the
mind in his readers too. I love writers who are observant and write about-well, everything.

dpougher said...

His brothr has written an illuminating piece on the Mail website: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2075133/Christopher-Hitchens-death-In-Memoriam-courageous-sibling-Peter-Hitchens.html

seana said...

My sister is a bit of a tea fanatic herself and if Iremember right, she thinks the water should be poured just slightly off the boil.

What I liked about the video of the debate was his absolute seriousness, which made everyone else seem like a bit of a lightweight. It was a form of bravery.

However, my impression from the short clip was that Shirley Williams objected to the use of the prize as a political instrument to make a statement. It's an interesting situation, because there are a lot of instances where freedom of expression must be protected even though the material is mediocre. Midnight's Children, however, is not mediocre, nor is any of Rushdie's work, so she is wrong even if she also happens to be right.

Also, I think Americans started making better coffee before the British did, though a long way after the Italians grasped the idea.

adrian mckinty said...

Speedskater

Perhaps I will experiment with my own blend.

adrian mckinty said...

John

I'm glad he didnt spend his last hours watching the GOP debate.

adrian mckinty said...

Frankie

A cup of tea and a biscuit can lift many a bad situation.

adrian mckinty said...

Frankie

A cup of tea and a biscuit can lift many a bad situation.

adrian mckinty said...

Lil

I like how passionate he was about literature. You almost never see that anywhere these days.

adrian mckinty said...

David

That was nice from Peter Hitch. I'm glad they didnt fight for the last year and a half.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Coffee in England was terrible until about 1997. If you ask me coffee in Australia is still terrible. No one in this country seems to know how to make a black coffee. If you ask for one they give you an espresso with added hot water.

adrian mckinty said...

here's a very nice piece from Ian McEwan in the New York Times about Hitchens's last days

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/opinion/christopher-hitchens-consummate-writer-brilliant-friend.html

adrian mckinty said...

Thanks to CFL for picking Falling Glass as his novel of the year for 2011!

seana said...

That last is very cool. It reminds me to tell you that the guy who had somehow singled out DIWMB awhile ago as the book for him, youngish black street kind of guy came in today. He had another copy in his hand and was asking me how much it cost. At 19.99 or whatever it is, it was a bit beyond his means. He told me he'd lost the last copy at the mall. He had read the other two in the trilogy and he was a big fan. If I'd had any presence of mind at all, I would have just bought this one for him, but maybe he'll find a used copy somewhere a long the way. I think he was your kind of customer, Adrian.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I think I'm to go out and buy some Hitch tomorrow, feeling kind of hollow that I didn't read him while he was alive.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Its a nice surprise to see that so many people liked a book that was "completely uncommercial in the United States".

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Arguably is a good place start. A fantastic book for the smallest room in the house or for long commutes.

adrian mckinty said...

Hitch on Northern Ireland:


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geaSw8QQvNI

HoldenCaufield said...

Rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens. I'll miss you.

And congrats to you, Adrian, for Falling Glass as novel of the year on CFL. The book deserves that recognition and more.

adrian mckinty said...

Holden

I think you'll like this piece by a friend of Hitch's in the Observer:


The human brain is said to be the most complicated object in the known universe. Christopher's seemed to be living proof of that. One night in Manhattan in the days when Christopher was just hitting the big time in America, we wound up in the only bar open in Midtown. We had been out to dinner with our editor at Vanity Fair and Christopher's great champion, Graydon Carter, and surfed into the bar on a modest wave of booze at about two in the morning. When Christopher was recognised by a drunk who came up and belligerently doubted he was as smart as he made out, he reacted with his usual courtly manner and calmed the man down. At length it was agreed that he would test Christopher's knowledge of poetry: if Christopher remembered the lines of any poem he chose to name, he would buy us a round of drinks.

Well, of course, the man didn't stand a chance.

His first challenge was the short poem by W B Yeats, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death. Christopher slowly plucked the first few lines from the air: "I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above/Those that I fight I do not hate/Those that I guard I do not love;" the rest tumbled out. He followed this with Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling and, for good measure, a fair portion of Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol, by which time he held the attention of the nighthawks of Midtown. Next day, with a blinding hangover, Christopher ordered devilled kidneys.

Dan said...

'assertion without proof can be dismissed without proof'
Yes, sad indeed that a man who could so cogently and simply present sometimes complex arguments to the everyman has shuffled off this mortal coil.
I've been a big fan of his for years and love 'hitchslap' hehe.
Oh and by the way, yes, predicting the future is easy by using tea...not those awful teabags :)

HoldenCaufield said...

Wow. And I can barely remember Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

I hope his brilliance transported somewhere and didn't just decay into dust. It’s the one slice of his genius that I hope was incorrect.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I bought God Is Not Great because the store was out of all of Hithchens but that and the A-to-Z collection of quotations. I’m not a big God guy, but I could use some bracing argument.
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Anonymous said...

Did you see this?
http://www.salon.com/2011/12/17/christohper_hitchens_and_the_protocol_for_public_figure_deaths/singleton/?mobile.html