I like tea, but I’m picky. I like tea that’s not too bitter, too tanniny, and has a little sweetness not conferred by sugar or <shudder> artificial sweeteners. For years, I could not figure out why the tea I made at home was so unappealing, while the tea served at even the lamest Chinese buffets was a thing I could drink all day. Once I was old enough to ask someone about it (it took me an embarrassingly long time to do this), I learned it was Jasmine green tea, and bought boxes and boxes of my own, in teabag form. For years, it was the only kind I drank.
Then I discovered chai, at Indian restaurants. It broke my rule about no sugar, which I justified by telling myself people in India drink it that way, so it’s authentic. You have to drink it that way. I learned to make it on my own, from scratch, crushing cloves and cardamon seeds, steeping loose black tea in a pot on the stove, lacing liberally with sweetened condensed milk. I was ridiculously proud of making my own, and wish I could say I still do that, but I could not figure out how to give it the flavor I craved. Cinnamon? Pepper? I tried everything. Finally I discovered, in a rented cabin in the Rockies, just the combination for me — 500 Mile Chair, by the Tao of Tea). I get it as loose tea, adding precise amounts (that is, too much) cream and sugar. When I revealed this daily habit to my internist, he was aghast, linking it irrefutably to my mildly dire cholesterol levels. I listened well, and I learned a lesson that day. The lesson was, of course: Don’t tell your doctor about your daily chai habit.
I call it my Sacred Chai Time, and it takes place anywhere between 10:30 and noon, whenever I start to feel peckish and judge my morning accomplishments sufficient to require a break. The bar is low. It could be Write New Memoir Chapter, or it could be Check Mailbox. Sacred Chai Time must be enjoyed in solitary, at a table, so I can read something while keeping the drink as hot as possible on a mug warmer, even when it’s 96 outside. The sacredness of this ritual — some might call it the stubborness of this addiction — can make travel dicey. If it’s 11:00 a.m and I’m halfway to Madison, I’m not having chai. It just does not work in a travel mug.
My travel mug mostly carries water, but on Sunday, I prepare what is becoming, I’m afraid, yet another nonnegotiable habit. It may look like I’m drinking coffee in church, but I am not. It’s apricot tea, glorified. One week, I added honey. That was good. The next week, I threw in a couple of dried apricots, sliced in half. That was a revelation. On week three, it occurred to me that the jar of apricot jam wasn’t being used much in sandwiches anymore, so I doled out a tablespoon and stirred it in. Holy cow! It gets better as you get to the bottom, so I shake it, discreetly, between hymns. By the last few inches it’s a gorgeous distillation of all that is apricot, and apricot is very good. When I get home, I spoon out the plumped up apricot halves and eat them, their flavor a bit drained, but their texture just the thing. Or if I linger for awhile and cannot bear to wait, I remove the top, tip it upside down, and chew. I have no idea what observers might think. Maybe they go home and say, “I think Pam was chewing her tea bag.” I knew a guy in college named Robin who would let his tea bag cool briefly, then place it in his mouth and suck the liquid out. It was September of our first year; college is, after all, a time to push our limits and impress new friends.
Too much caffeine makes my heart race and keeps me awake at night, so when I had an evening meeting last week, I had to resort to the only decaf tea in the cupboard — blackberry sage, from The Republic of Tea. But how to make it special? How to, you know, tart it up? I threw in some blueberries and wished I had some blackberry jam. It was fine, but next time, I’m adding some sliced prunes to the mix. They are, after all, dried plums, and I’ll bet that combination will be really good. Call it glorified tea, call it a tisane. It’s the thing to drink when you’re not just thirsty, but hungry.