When I moved from Minnesota to Cornwall, I brought along a suitcaseful of misconceptions, and a lot of them involved tea. It was a secular religion, full of rituals that I’d better study if I wanted anyone to drink a cup at my house. You had to use leaves, not teabags. You had to warm the pot before making the tea. You had to surround afternoon tea with all sorts of special touches like bone china and paper doilies.
Then I went to the supermarket. The shelves were full of teabags, and they came in the kind of in industrial-size boxes that scream People Buy Lots of These Things. To find leaf tea, I had to search. I balanced my choices one against the other. I considered practicality and time and cost. I compared and contrasted.
I went home with teabags.
True, the village whisperers give extra credit if you use leaves. It’s one of those things people mention—she uses leaf tea; you won’t find a teabag in her house—to say someone sets a certain standard. More rarely they might say it about themselves, but folks here don’t like to brag; besides, the people I’m drawn to can’t be bothered to set a standard.
The village whisperers also give extra credit for bone china, matching cups, and for milk in a jug. On the other hand, they know the value of a decent cup of tea, whether it’s made with teabags or leaves.
Teabags are everywhere. Ask for tea in a café and 45 times out of 50 you’ll get teabags. Or maybe that’s 99 out of a hundred. Go to my friends’ houses and they’ll toss a bag in a cup. Or several in a pot. This is real life. They have other things to think about.
And warming the pot? If the house is cold, yes. If it isn’t, why bother? Really, everyone has other things to do. Or as my friend B. used to say, with a lovely British turn of phrase, “I can’t be arsed.”
As for afternoon tea, it was introduced early in the nineteenth century, when it was the preserve of the upper class, and that’s given the phrase the glitter that Americans still see clinging to it. These days, though, it’s British for coffee break. It’s a wonderful institution, but so is the coffee break. You stop for a few minutes. If you work standing up, you sit down. If you work sitting down, you get up and move around. If you’re not working, you stop whatever you’re not doing and do something different. And whether you’re sitting on the curb near a construction site or at a table on the patio of that perfect café with a view of the sea and seagulls wheeling across the sky, you drink something caffeinated and maybe eat something sugared. If you’re lucky in your life or your job, you sit with people you like and trade a few words. It may involve those special touches and it may not.
Tea itself isn’t anything fancy. It’s an ordinary drink, wrestling with beer for first place in the nation’s heart. Or maybe that should be gullet. If you want something fancy, you want a coffee. (Not “coffee,” mind you, but “a coffee.”) And not instant—instant is the stuff of village halls and people’s kitchens—but something that involves steam and noise and a machine the size of a Volkswagen. But for ordinary situations, you turn to tea. If the plumber shows up to fix your toilet, you make tea. If a friend shows up in tears, you make tea. Unless, of course, your friendship dictates beer.
A friend swears that in her family, you did two things in a crisis: You made tea and you turned on the lights. The business with lights is particular to her family, but the tea? That’s typical.
I’ve confessed to using teabags and to not heating the pot unless the house is cold. Do my friends drink the tea I brew? You bet they do. The two things you can’t compromise on are decent (not to say fancy, just decent) tea and boiling water. Brewing tea with lukewarm water is the surest sign of an unreconstructed American—not to mention a lousy pot of tea. I boil my water. I toss teabags unashamedly into the pot.
Most of the time I have homemade goodies on hand, and that doesn’t hurt, but that’s as far as the special touches go. The mugs don’t match, after eight years some of the plates are chipped, and there isn’t a doily or a three-tiered serving whatsit in the house. Most of the time I set out the milk container instead of pouring it into a jug and I’ve been known to put the cookies out in a plastic bag when I’m too frazzled to herd them onto a plate, but we drink tea, we want to put our feet up if we want to, and we talk.
It’s the talking that matters most.
So, you lovely American Anglophiles, I don’t want to take the fun out of this. I understand Anglophilia. Before I moved here, I missed Britain when I got back to Minnesota, and every cup of tea I drank was flavoured by that. But honestly, it’s just a drink, and an ordinary one at that. The country’s a joy even if you don’t make a religion out of tea—although you do get extra credit for those little touches.
Ellen Hawley is an American living in Cornwall. Her blog, Notes from the U.K., is at http://www.notesfromtheuk.com. Her novel, The Divorce Diet (Kensington) will be released on December 30, 2014. The Divorce Diet.