Friday, March 7, 2008

The Irish Tradition of Tea



[This post was written for the 4th Edition of the Carnival of Irish Heritage & Culture.]

I grew up drinking tea as well as coffee but much more tea. Not only was it due to the fact that tea was a much more acceptable beverage for a child than coffee, but more so due to the influence of my great-grandmother, Therese McGinnis Austin. To this day, some of my tea-related habits are difficult to break.

Spending mealtimes at Grandma's meant following certain habits, well actually traditions, that would now seem like rules:

1. Coffee is only served at breakfast
2. Tea is served with dinner and supper
3. Tea is meant to be strong
4. Use a tea cozy to keep the tea pot warm
5. Drink with milk and sugar
6. Always use a fancy teaspoon and pick the fanciest

And these are in fact the very rules I try to follow today. After many years in California, and returning to a cold Chicago, I've picked up the tea tradition once again.

1. Coffee is only served at breakfast

I think this is just a peculiarity of my upbringing but we never had coffee at any other meal besides breakfast. I don't know if this was a measure of frugality since coffee always seemed to be more expensive than tea or just practicality from a caffeine standpoint (you need the big jolt in the morning and less during the rest of the day).

2. Tea is served with dinner and supper

Also, in the days of living on a farm, the midday meal was always called dinner and the evening meal was called supper. Dinner was at 12pm and was a large meal such as roast chicken or another roast, potatoes etc. It was meant to replenish those working in the fields or the barn and keep them going until sunset. Supper was a lighter meal consisting of sandwiches made from the leftovers of the dinner meal. My great-grandparents kept this tradition later in life, despite not having a working farm. Since my great-grandfather worked as a timekeeper for many of the aqueduct construction projects (in the 1940s and 50s they were built to supply water to NYC), and he worked the swing-shift, this made sense. They had a big meal before he left for work, then those of us left at home would have supper later on.

3. Tea is meant to be strong

My favorite tea growing up was Lipton's basic blend. Grandma would use many tea bags so that the tea was strong.

Nowadays I am hooked on Twining's Irish Breakfast (pictured above). Irish Breakfast is different than English Breakfast in that it uses only black Assam tea and is not as much a blend as other breakfast teas. It is also known as "robust" meaning it is much stronger and has a more intense flavor. In Ireland, this is only called "tea" not "breakfast tea." Amazon is a great source for ordering this tea and many others.

4. Use a tea cozy to keep the tea pot warm

Grandma had a number of "weird pillows" in the kitchen. They were weird because I just thought that she never got around to sewing them all the way and one side was always open. But I later learned that it was mean to be slipped over the tea pot to retain the heat while it steeped for the regulatory 5 minutes. I don't have a tea cozy but I think I might either make one or buy one. For now, I throw a kitchen towel over the tea put while it is brewing.

5. Drink with milk and sugar

We never had lemon or honey or even cream available, just milk and sugar. Cream wasn't meant for tea since it could do with a touch of milk. And a "wee bit of sugar" always helped.

6. Always use a fancy teaspoon and pick the fanciest

This last rule has special meaning to me. Grandma always kept a cut glass container on the kitchen table which held about 20 different teaspoons. There was no lid, and the spoons were inserted with the handles pointing up. I am not sure if these were from various sets of silverware she owned over the years, or if they were picked up at rummage sales or flea markets. But the kids would always have a skirmish over picking their favorite spoon. To me, it didn't seem like tea time if someone wasn't sulking at the table due to their inability to grab their favorite stirrer. The remainder of tea time was spent plotting revenge or devising some scheme to wrest that spoon from the other child. Good times.

4 comments:

Janice said...

Why fight over the best spoon, when only the best tea cup counts!?! :D :D

Janice

Chery said...

Thomas,

I LOVE Irish Breakfast tea--it appeals to my Celtic side. I discovered it a few years ago, and it has been my favorite ever since. And, what a great description of choosing the perfect stirring spoon.

Apple said...

I don't know when I stopped drinking tea in favor of coffee. I was raised on Red Rose. I have a tea cozy but no tea pot!

Colleen Johnson said...

Love tea from my grandma. Always drink it with milk and sugar. I thought I was the only one using multiple Lipton tea bags to make my tea strong! :) I've never grown to like coffee but drink tea throughout the afternoon and evening. Great post.