Thinking about tea and teapots while eating fresh dates

There are so many memories and quotes about tea and teapots.  While living in Britain, I learned that everything is much better with a “warm cuppa.” Even today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, tea can be soothing to the body and soul.

In her book, When Calls the Heart, Janette Oke pondered the idea that a fine china tea set would make life in a log cabin much more civilized when she said, “There seemed to be so many things that I needed, but I held myself in check and purchased only essentials – with the exception of one extravagance. I had determined that I would drink my tea like a lady, even in a log house; so I purchased a teapot and two cups and saucers of fine china. I felt somehow Mama’s mind would be much more at ease about me if she knew that I was having my tea in the proper fashion. After all, civilization could not be too far away from Pine Springs if I had such amenities!”

In Pomegranate Soup, a lovely book that marries Persian cooking with Irish living, the author, Marsha Mehran writes: “There were ceramic teapots in aubergine, mustard, and midnight blue (good for one, sweeter still when shared between two drinkers); and forty small, thin glasses with curved handles, set in gold- and silver-plated holders etched with arabesque swirls. Bahar gingerly lined the tea glasses up on the counter where the cappuccino machine had been stationed. She tucked the teapots into the counter’s glass-panelled belly, where they sat prettily next to twenty glass containers of loose-leaf teas, ranging from bergamot and hibiscus to oolong.”

In The Water Castle, Megan Frazer Blakemore plays with a trunk full of treasures and memories when she describes the moment when the lid was opened. “Ephraim lifted the top of the trunk. Neatly stacked were mementoes from what seemed like hundreds of journeys. Right on top was an etching of the Eiffel tower next to an African mask that looked at him with surprised eyes. He reached in a little deeper and unearthed a small teapot decorated with blue drawings just like the kind his grandmother collected and kept in a locked china cabinet.”

For the first twenty years of my life, I lived in the southern United States. Oklahoma to be exact.  I have no memory of hot tea or teapots even though the china cabinet contained an array of thin, highly decorated teacups.  I recall, as a child, being taken to the window in the dining room and being shown the translucency of the eggshell cups. They were not used for tea but were brought out on exceptional occasions with the coffee service.  Everyone drank iced tea.  If anyone had ordered hot tea at a restaurant, I am not sure the wait staff would have known precisely what to do.  Tea was not hot except for its brewing for iced tea.  There was no flavoured powdered tea.  People in the South are purists.  Teabags were brewed and then water and ice were added, never sugar.  The tea was served in stemmed goblets.  The sugar, if it was used at all, was combined with the help of an extra-long silver spoon and stirred till every last crystal was dissolved.  Some added the juice from a fresh lemon.

It was only as a new immigrant to Canada that the comfort and the Britishness of hot tea and an old Brown Betty pot were appreciated.  The tea that was made was Black and robust, most often requiring milk and sugar to chase away the bitterness.  Hot tea was comforting to hold the cup or mug during the cold of the Manitoba winters, the steam warming your face.  The favourite brand in southern Manitoba was Red Rose.  I was never sure if it was the price, the quality, or the fact that there were often small Wade ceramic figurines tucked inside the boxes for collecting beginning in 1967.

Fast-forward and my life and the world of tea expanded in ways that I could not have dreamed of during those first winters in Canada.  First was the chai simmered in some pretty forlorn tin or aluminium pots on the railway platforms in India.  Delicious and creamy and often made even better with the infusion of cardamon.  In Pakistan, tea was made on the side of the road in brightly painted metal pots while in Beijing, one could sit for hours in the Kempinski Hotel’s tea room sipping jasmine tea made in glass pots.

I am not the only person whose knowledge of tea has changed.  Around the world, there are masters purchasing teas – green, white, Pu’er, Oolong and Black – for our more refined palettes.  Teas are blended in the same way that whiskeys are with the masters identifying the notes in each.  You can take classes on tea.  You can order tea from the tea plantations along with suitable teacups and pots.

Today, I have an extensive collection of handmade teapots.  They range from the most recent, a gift from Grace Han when she was leaving for Vancouver to a lovely lacquer one made by the lacquer master in Bagan, Malaysia brought back by my son.  There are others, tucked away in China cabinets or sitting in my office for students to hold and critique.

 

Top row from left:  Grace Han teapot (2019) made using Korean mould technique (Grace’s rock series); John Reeve temmoku teapot made at Sheridan College, 1976; lacquer tea set made in Bagan, Myanmar. Bottom row from left:  Valerie Metcalfe, Barbara Tipton, and Gunda Stewart.

Each of my teapots holds a special place in my heart because of the memories and the beautiful people who made them.  They are, in fact, more than just vessels for brewing and serving tea.  It is a way of enjoying a quiet or shared moment with an old friend.

As my knowledge of tea has grown, so has my questions about teapots. Indeed, my taste in tea has changed dramatically.  Instead of buying big boxes of 120 teabags of Black tea, I purchase small sealed packets of hand-rolled black teas from Malawi or small-batch silver tip jasmine white tea from Wuyi, China.  Then there are the greens from Uji, Japan and the roasted nuttiness of genmaicha.  Indeed, the only black tea that I drink is Huntington’s hand-rolled from Malawi.  Its sweetness requires no sugar, and while you could steep it so that milk would be required, there is no need unless you walk off and forget it!

All of this brings me to the question of the teapot.  The way that we enjoy tea today has changed from what it was during the war years in Britain or even on the Canadian prairies in the 1970s.  We are more sophisticated in our knowledge of tea while, at the same time, there have been a growing number of companies and shops to cater to us.  Today, I want to see the colour of the tea develop and to watch the leaves unfurl and to do this, I must use a glass pot.  The same is true for any of the flowering silver tip white teas.  I want to see the colour develop along with the unfurling of the leaves.

New revelations on the best temperatures to use to infuse different varieties of tea have resulted in small appliance manufacturers making electric kettles with temperature controls.  Today, it is generally known that one simply does not boil the pot until the whistle is blowing the roof off unless they want their lovely green jasmine tea to be anything bitter.  There is a French tea company, Palais des Thes, that has a marvellous green tea that is mixed with rose and raspberry leaves.  A friend placed the leaves of the Paris for Her tea in a pot and poured boiling water over it and allowed the tea to steep as she would any black tea.  After she was shocked at how bitter the brew was – so upset that she called the North American head office to complain.  In the end, it turned out that instead of 100 degrees C, the tea required 70 degrees C and a very short steep.  To handle this, some tea companies sell only 150 ml and 300 ml teapots so that you are merely making 1 or 2 cups.  No leaves will turn bitter if you check the water temperature required and the length of the steep – generally supplied with the tea.

So what am I going on about????????  Well, like the right temperature of water to infuse the tea leaves, there has to be an equally appropriate teapot for specific teas.  The Chinese make their Yixing teapots out of a beautiful local clay that is sometimes a purple-brown colour when fired.  There is no glaze.  The pot absorbs the flavour of the tea that has been infused after years (assuming the same type of tea is used) until, eventually, less tea is needed.  Glazed clay teapots can be used for any kind of tea but should they?  And should we make such large pots that the tea continues to steep under the cosy becoming more bitter?  So my argument is this:  If you are infusing a standard black or herbal tea, go for the ceramic pot.  But if you are brewing a rare tea whose colour and unfurling is paramount to its appreciation, then you simply must use a small glass pot.

4 June – a special bittersweet day

4 June is a special day for me.  It was the day my youngest son, Will, was born.  It was also the day that I landed in Canada with my oldest son, Cris, who was just six weeks old as a political immigrant from the Vietnam War.  As the plane began its descent into Winnipeg, the thought going through my head was It looks just like Oklahoma but with black soil!  You have no idea how disappointed I was.

My parents made sure that I had the best education they could afford but, still, this meant that I learned Civics, American history, Oklahoma history and because I was at Mt St. Mary’s (The Mount as it was called affectionately), I had lots of classes in Latin.  What I did not study, like almost all Americans then, was global history or global geography.  There was one course in International Relations.  Indeed, I was not the exception, this was the norm.  And, I am told that this is much the same in middle and high schools throughout the United States. It is a very insular view, one that traps people into not appreciating the differences and beauty between cultures – the food, the literature, the music, and, even religious beliefs.  The Internet might have closed that gap somewhat, I do not know because, today, I have been so fortunate to have lived and travelled around the world for the past thirty-five years.

At the time of my immigration, however, my knowledge of Canada came from four very different things, three from news coverage (both the telly and print) and the other from my family collection of knick-knacks.

The first was that handsome, globe-trotting, sandal wearing Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau.  Like the Kennedys were to so many of . my mother’s generation that Camelot, fairytale political family, Trudeau was the same to me.  He was a kind of demi-god, good looking, intelligent, charismatic, and alive.  What a contrast between Richard Nixon, who had been sworn in on 20 January 1969.  Like night and day to my eyes.  Trudeau was on all the newsreels at the theatre, on the telly, and in stories in the popular magazines that my mother bought such as Time and Life.  For many young female Americans, Trudeau was a heartthrob – me, too.

220px-Pierre_Trudeau_(1975)

 

The second was Expo ’67.  I wonder how many people realize that it was Moscow that had won the first bid to hold this international showcase but, having dropped out in 1962, Jean Drapeau insisted that it come to Montreal who had been in second place.  The site was to be the man-made islands in St Lawrence which were made more substantial due to all of the rubble left from the construction of Montreal’s underground.  Images of the eighty-metre diameter geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller to be the US Embassy were in all of the newspapers and magazines.  Today, it still stands without its original plastic covering that burned away in a fire in 1976.  Other structures that survived are Habitat 67, the Casino de Montreal and the Place des Nations.

expo67

The third was a television show, Sargeant Preston and Yukon King.  Growing up in Oklahoma meant that snow was, at least at the time, exhilarating.  It was such a rare occurrence that everyone on our street would run out and take photographs.  Cars would skid on them, and they would have to put chains on if it lasted more than a day – which seemed even rarer than it falling in the first place.  The snow was magical then!  The RCMP officer, dressed in his scarlet uniform with high black boots, rode a horse called Rex.  The dog team was led by Yukon King.  Together they helped solve crimes, a typical good versus evil scenario filled the television screens for half an hour with the show lasting from 1955-58.  Like all of the others, it was rebroadcast over and over again and was shot entirely in colour.  It was 1957 and having moved into a new house, my father came home with brand-new colour television.  We were the first on the block!  Then those gorgeous tall pine trees really came to life with the blue running rivers.  Little did I know that the whole thing was shot in the state just northwest of us, Colorado.  To me then, and in 1969, that was my visions of Canada:  snow, babbling brooks and fast running rivers, and lots and lots of pine trees and deer.

This understanding of what the Canadian landscape was reinforced further by several ceramics figurine groups that stood in our windows.  My mother’s mother was a collector of clay ornaments.  They were mostly roosters in some kind of salt and pepper configuration.  When she died, my father inherited them.  In our living room, there was a picture window about 12 feet long and 6 feet tall.  Not being an architect or interior designer, I can only describe that window as being made of individual glass panes set in wood forming boxes with 3-4 inches of a ledge.  This was where the ceramic figurines lived.  Several included images of RCMP, a dog or dog and sledge, and a pine tree.

vintage-litho-autographed-sgt-preston-yukon-king_1_c0b9b15522dade9b102c64e56d027e26

These four things cemented in my mind a vision of Canada, my new home.  I had left the United States because of the Vietnam War.  Oklahoma is a very conservative state, but the city of Norman is much more liberal-minded, helped along by the presence of the University of Oklahoma.  I started classes when I was 16, first in Pharmacy, with a quick switch to the art school.  I had a very dear friend, Chris Wilson, who later met a young man from Berkley, Bill, who became her husband.  They immigrated to Canada as well.  I have lost touch with Chris, but we did manage to spend time with one another- the pair of them living in Winnipeg and I was living in Carman, an hour away, for a few years.  They married at the lovely little stone church on St. Mary’s in Winnipeg and hung out with Mitch Podolak, one of the founders of the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Carman, Manitoba was my first home in Canada.  The population was about 3000 at the time.  There were two Chinese restaurants.  The Rex that was always busy and The York who wasn’t.  On the window of The York Café was a sign:  Banana splits 65 cents.  But every time I stopped there, the Chinese man had no bananas.  One day, I bought bananas and took them to the York so that the Chinese owner would have to make that banana split.  I was intrigued.  There was an old-fashioned soda counter if my memory is working correctly, but no one was ever in there.  It turns out that the man was a member of Mao’s red army and had escaped to Hong Kong and eventually immigrated to Canada and was sent to Carman.  There was a theatre run by Bob Diemert’s mother, a bakery, and a few other shops.  Mr Klos, a Dutchman, came in a small pickup selling fruits and vegetables (incredibly fresh) to your door while milk products were delivered daily.  Blue Boy ice cream was delicious!  You just put a sign in your window, and the delivery man would stop.  Both were a tremendous help to a mom with an energetic baby.  Coming from a city caused a bit of culture shock, but the people were terrific.  I remember all of them with great fondness and see a few once in awhile still.

As it turns out, there were actually more women that immigrated to Canada because of the Vietnam War than the men.  Wives, mothers, and daughters all came.  Some aunts.  If you are interested, there are several books by Joseph Jones, a resister from North Carolina who came to Canada, first to Quebec and then Toronto where he worked on the publishing of  AMEX-Canada.  Retired from his position at UBC, Jones continues to maintain the War Resisters Web site.  It is a treasure trove of information, facts, statistics, information on books and individuals.  Joseph has been a tremendous help to me in my research.  Hopefully, I will finish my book on the contributions of these amazing individuals to Canadian ceramics, and all the time he spent with me will have been worthwhile!

There is a misconception amongst the men that the women who came did not give up anything.  Many said to me, “Well, you could just go back across the border without fear of arrest anytime you wanted”.  While that was true (save for the female in the military), it was equally valid that, most often, there were not the finances for a trip home very often.  Women gave up their friends, the ability to spontaneously visit their family easily and often, many gave up lucrative careers, professional practices.  Those who were artists gave up their studios and their supportive clients.  University course credit was lost as well.  This meant that many of us on the verge of graduating lost years of study and had to repeat many courses all over.  My loss was not being able to see my maternal grandmother who had raised me very often and not to have been there to help with her care when she was dying.

Many have asked me if I would do it all over again?  Leave everything that I knew and move to a small town on the Canadian Prairies.  The answer is a resounding ‘YES’.  Most Canadians recognize that helping one another makes a healthy, stable society.  While the Indigenous people were here long before the settlers, besides them, the rest of us are all immigrants.  Today, and in the years to come, natural disasters and war will cause many more people to leave their homes.  I hope that we can remain a country friendly to these people.  I am certain if, given the choice, they would want to return to their homes and lives pre-conflict if it were possible.

Winnipeg has had many waves from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, parts of Africa, India, Philippines, Vietnam, and now the Middle East.  The Chinese helped build Canada’s railway system to the West.  And, when I first moved here, almost every little town along the railway line had a Chinese café.  If I keep mentioning it, it is because I love Chinese food and the closest Chinese restaurant to where I lived growing up in Norman, Oklahoma was in Dallas, Texas!  One of my favourites was The Blue Bird Café in either Holland or Treherne, Manitoba.  All of the booths were painted turquoise blue.  But, what captured my heart was the ancient Chinatown in Winnipeg.  In the winter, the windows of the tiny cafes would steam up.  You could sit in the kitchen of the Hong Hing and watch them cook your meal while the barbecued pork and duck hung by hooks near the front.  There was one shop with worn wooden floors that had ceramics piled halfway to the ceiling.  It was magical.  Today, everything is new and sanitized.   My Polish and Ukrainian friends introduced me to cabbage rolls and perogies while the earliest Mexican restaurants (and some current ones) make me exasperated.  The Mexican food in Oklahoma was nothing short of mouth-watering.  Once every couple of weeks, my dad would bring home a large bag of homemade tamales that one of his co-worker’s wives had made.  I miss the Sonic, chicken fried steak, and being able to enjoy watermelon ripened (for real) on the vine.  And I miss my friends but, I remain a proud Canadian and thankful for that day, so many decades ago, that I landed on Canadian soil – even if it were black!

I have left Manitoba many times, always to return.  The weather is terrible in the winter and the mosquitoes in the summer have made t-shirts showing a big red mosquito with the text, ‘I gave blood in Manitoba’ all too common.  Still, love this place.

One aspect of this Canadian caring is in our medical system.  When I go to the doctor or to the hospital, I do not pay for anything.  Not a cent.  Do I mind if I don’t have an emergency and I might have to wait a bit – NO.  This is because I know people who have had real medical emergencies and needed immediate care.  They go first.  And I don’t get upset about it because there will come a time when I have that emergency and need that prompt attention and someone else will wait.  Do I mind paying high taxes to support our health care system?  NO.  Absolutely not.  I rest easy knowing that I will not be bankrupted by getting sick and having to go to the hospital.  I rest easy knowing that if it comes to it, I will have the proper care in an assisted living centre that is regulated by the government with excellent standards.  And if I can afford to pay, the highest rate in Manitoba is around $2500 per month.   While we are certainly not taken care of from the cradle to the grave in the same way that people are in Denmark, infant mortality is low, life expectancy is reasonable, and happiness is high in Canada.

My only complaint is that our resources need stewardship, just like they do around the world.  And that is a conversation for another day.  For now, I am just savouring the fact that I live in Canada, that my children are Canadians, my grandchildren are Canadians and that each of us treasures the social fabric of this vast country.