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Touring a standard British kitchen, I open a cabinet and find rows of mugs, like ceramic soldiers ready for the next guest invasion. There’s a kettle on the counter, a teapot, strainers, tea cosies, and an airtight box of teabags. The cutlery tray’s design tells me much about this culture: the teaspoons sit front and centre, within easy reach. I’ve already made myself quite at home, so I open the fridge, and I find its milk stock as I suspected: plentiful. I doubt a British household has ever experienced the no-milk panic because a new jug is always secured before the old one is empty.
These classic kitchen set-ups were novelties to me during my first months in the UK. We didn’t have an electric kettle in the home that I grew up in. We had a Hotshot, which heats water for one cup of something, usually a powdered hot chocolate mix. There was a stovetop kettle for special occasions. The teaspoon section was in the back of the drawer and overrun by dessert forks.
I grew up in a culture that places tea in the fridge, sweetened to death and often mixed with American-style lemonade. My lineage is one in which an obsession with iced tea runs deep – a generation of women with the cold brew flooding their veins. My grandma passed down this fussiness to my mother and my aunt who judge the quality of a restaurant solely on the freshness of its iced tea. The tea must have lots of ice and be recently brewed, not any sort of pre-packaged tea-like imposter. These ladies doctor their beverages with artificial sweeteners and order boxfuls of extra-long straws to fit their extra-tall glasses.
At the risk of heresy, I admit this generational snobbery has skipped me. I’ve never much liked iced tea, so when I came to London I wasn’t prepared to get my feet wet either in the English tea tradition, hot or cold. How naïve.
Tea cornered me. I’d come in from the 1°C rain and find my friends huddled around the kettle and hear the clink of spoons on ceramic, and the drink would taunt me from their clasped mugs, a steamy summons. I’d surrender if only to soften the climate’s assault on my hands. This raised white flag – many times – hasn’t made me a tea connoisseur, but each mugful has offered me more insight about the place a cup of tea holds in British hands and hearts.
For much of 2011, I worked in a Bermondsey youth centre. Of the two British staff, one drank instant coffee (another novelty, perhaps that’s worth another blog post) and the other was a staunch tea die-hard. Each morning I walked into the centre to the sound of heating water. An hour later we’d visit a school, come back, and “I’ll put the kettle on” would echo through the hall. We’d set up for the afternoon kids club, open the doors, sell sugar in its many forms to the children, run the club, then hand the children back to their parents. As soon as the doors closed behind the last child, someone would ask, “Tea?”
It confused me, this drink and its hold on the British. Was it the taste? I do like the flavour of tea, but it’s hardly comparable to the sugar fizz-bomb of Appletiser (now that is a lovely drink). And if thirst were the issue, wouldn’t one want cold water?
Taste and thirst considered, I came then to comfort, and familiarity. The weather stepped in, and I thought of my own perpetually cold hands, how the damp and chill gets inside you no matter how thick your coat. I thought of the flu and the way a mug of steam makes you briefly forget your miseries. I thought of novels and quilts, a fireplace. Tea belongs in such scenes.
It’s also the drink of friends. You don’t say, “Come over to talk.” You say, “Come over for a cup of tea,” and talking is a given, as I learned that milk is a given when asking someone how they take their tea. (For months I had asked if people took it with milk and sugar until I realised that everyone took milk and I should just ask about the sugar.) Women gather around a kettle like men gather around a televised sports match.
Then I thought about tea in the context of stress. The phrase “I really need a cup of tea” is a type of pause button, a polite way to say, “Don’t talk to me right now.” Perhaps it’s easier to face life’s unexpected train wrecks gripping a mug; we slice up life’s lemons and put them in a cuppa. The drink may have calming qualities, or the link between tea and peace is all in our heads. Either way, we continue to boil the kettle.
Tea, you won. I don’t know if it was the weather, the stress of carving a life in a new country or simply your presence in every social setting, but I’m a convert. You’ve messed with my head and made your mark on my kitchen, where an army of mugs waits in the cabinet.