Once I get this written, I’m going to treat myself to a mug of chai. Not chai made from a vile powdered mix, but the real thing. Chai made from tea, and seasonings like cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, and piping hot water. Chai finished off with cream, by which I mean half-and-half, except around the holidays, when there always seems to be some leftover whipping cream that really should be used up. Chai brightened with a heaping spoonful of sugar. Ah.
“Chai” means “tea” in Hindu. If you ask for “chai tea” in an Indian restaurant, your server may stifle a smile as he hears you request “tea tea.” There are rare white teas picked off mountain tops in Tibet, and sturdy British Breakfast tea that soldiers in World War I drank even in the trenches, as often as not served with sugar cubes and milk. Those were the days, when even war was civilized, or tried to be.
I never thought I’d be a tea drinker. In our house, Dad was the one who drank it. Every night, just before dinner was served, Mom would run fresh water into the Revere kettle and fire up the Chambers stove. When we heard it whistle, we knew it was time to come to the table. Dad drank it with milk, which I thought was weird. Once I was old enough to consume coffee, I took it plain.
In college, I had a friend named Robin who drank tea. He freaked us all out every time he would take the tea bag, still steaming, put it into his mouth, and suck on it briefly (and, surely, painfully) to get every bit of liquid out. You could say he was thorough, or you could say he was nuts.
Coffee began to disappoint me around that time. It was decades before Starbucks put a coffeehouse on every corner, serving concoctions so dolled up with flavored syrups and mounds of whipped cream it took five minutes, and a spoon, to get to the actual liquid. My favorite thing from a new-age coffeehouse is a mocha, which is to coffee as chai is to tea. At least I can point to an entire civilization that considers chai its national drink.
It’s not that I won’t drink tea plain. I love the tea they serve at Chinese restaurants, and finally thought to ask what it was. Green jasmine, I was told, and promptly went out to buy some.
But I think the main reason I love having tea is the ceremony. I don’t mean the Japanese tea ceremony, about which I know pretty much nothing, except that it’s served by geishas, and they do all the work. When I order tea, it’s usually for two reasons: I’m starving, but I don’t want to ruin my appetite with the soup du jour or, for that matter, the Buffalo wings du jour. I just want something warm to fool my tummy into thinking it’s being fed.
Secondly, I want something to do. Of course, the personal tea ceremony really depends on how the restaurant brings it to the table. Some places plunk down a cup of hot water and a Lipton tea bag and, if you’re lucky, a pale wedge of lemon. Okay, that’ll do. But other places bring you a mahogany box laden with all sorts of flavors, looking a little like a throwback to a library card catalog – only with cards you can steep and sip.
The water may arrive in an actual tea pot, in which case I might slide two bags out of the box, reserving the second one for later. The idea of making one bag last through two cups of hot water seems awfully stingy to me. I mean, if you get a second cup of coffee, do they run more water through the same wet grounds they used for the first cup? I don’t think so.
I love tea shops. You can shop for tea and you can drink it, all in the same place. (You can’t shop for bait and go fishing in a bait shop, can you?) I’ve been to tea rooms in Wisconsin, Michigan, even San Antonio. The one in Texas was so genteel, they wrapped the lemon wedge in a square of cheesecloth and tied with a ribbon. It took me a moment to realize what it was, and why. You could squeeze out however much lemon juice you wanted, and the seeds would remain inside their wrapping. How clever. How nice.
My favorite tea place is in Milwaukee. Named Watts Tea Shop, it’s on the second floor, on top of a store filled with china sets, aprons, fancy vases, and, no kidding, wedding gowns. I go for the tea, and the adorable strainer that fits right over your cup to catch the loose tea as you pour. Just to make you properly thirsty, they serve Sunshine Cake, a three-layer sponge cake with French custard filling and 7-minute boiled frosting – plus an edible flower. I always eat the flower. It’s better than a sprig of parsley, and a lot more fun.
I don’t like winter, but I love an excuse to drink something hot. My hands get really cold, even inside the house, and nothing feels better than wrapping them around a warm mug. Maybe coffee, if there’s enough cream in the house. Maybe hot cocoa, if I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself. Or maybe chai, which, for me at least, seems to cover all bases. If I find a bit of cake on the kitchen counter, I won’t even need lunch.