Friday, April 18, 2014

Stay strong: the origins of 'weak tea'

The other day I referred to a politician's less-than-inspiring declaration as being "pretty weak tea." It's one of those colloquialisms that slips in, often unawares. But I thought: where'd that come from?

The phrase is utilized commonly to denote "something watered down compared to the alternative" and is often defined in reference to the diluting of our beloved beverage, "from the practice of adding boiling water to normally brewed tea to create a drink with less flavor and/or caffeine." Wordnik has added "an unconvincing argument" to the definition of "weak tea," which otherwise is "a dilute solution of tea."

One of my favorite things to do these days is spelunk through the Oxford English Dictionary. Alas, the OED doesn't define "weak tea" by itself, but it has tracked it within a few other definitions and quotations, all of which refer to actual poorly brewed tea rather than a metaphorical letdown.

Still, some good lexical fun ...

The earliest usage of "weak tea" as a pejorative beverage is 1825, in Robert Forby's Vocabulary of East Anglia, in reference to the word "lap," as in: to lap up your soup. Here, though, it's as a noun: lap being a diluted sustenance such as "thin broth or porridge; weak tea, &c." The same book applies the phrase to another, wilder one: "water bewitched," a colloquialism "used derisively for excessively diluted liquor; now chiefly, very weak tea." Years later, in an 1874 slang dictionary, "water bewitched" also had this note: "Sometimes very weak tea is called ‘husband's tea.’"

Weak tea being something that makes one miserable (adj.), it's also equated to miserable (n.), first in a description of the "miserable Mrs. O'Grady had prepared" (from Handy Andy: A Tale of Irish Life, 1842 — of course, the Irish would loathe a brew they could see through), and later in a kind of half-adjective, half-noun usage in a 1900 novel: "There was only a miserable tea left." The use of "miserable" as a noun, the OED reports, is "now rare."

A particularly situated usage of the phrase first popped up in an 1897 Journal of American Folklore as "switchel," a word used in and around Newfoundland for "a mug of weak tea given to the sailors between meals when at the seal fishing." But nearly a century later the term had about-faced, appearing in a 1974 National Geographic as "a ‘cup o' switchel’, as they call strong tea."

In the 1950s, weak tea could be referred to — in certain rougher circles, perhaps — as "gnat's piss." The OED has a ’66 definition of "gnat's piss" as "cider, near beer, weak tea or any drink." That's from a book called The ABZ of Scouse (which you can still find), a kind of guide to the dialect particular to the environs of Liverpool in the UK. (A while back, I wrote an appreciation of the late radio DJ John Peel, in which I referred to him, a Liverpudlian, as "a scouse." A brief back-and-forth with the fact-checker resulted in a footnote.) A Glossary of North Country Words, from 1846, also includes the word "wou," defining it first as "the worst kind of swipes" but then "also applied to weak tea, or any other worthless liquor."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Egg hunting? Try Chinese tea eggs

As Easter weekend arises, no doubt many of us have eggs on the brain. The kind of egg dying I prefer to do as an adult, however, involves cracking the shells and boiling them in tea.

Chinese tea eggs are typical mixtures of beauty and nourishment. Here's a good recipe for the tasty snacks, fairly easy to make — though, in my experience, a skill requiring some finesse.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday tea TV: Irani teahouses

Interesting short documentary here: a look into some tea cafes in Iran. They're called coffee houses, but they don't serve coffee. Dig all the stunning urns and samovars!

"In Iran, taking a break without a hot cup of black tea would be meaningless." See, not so different.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Happy tea cup art

Just a bit of merchandise spotted at Disneyland recently —

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tea pot and cup rings

This photo of these adorable rings has been kudzu-ing along Twitter and Pinterest in recent weeks, but without any source information (like where to buy). If you know, do tell.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: Spring into tea

Spring has sprung, spring classes have begun, the world is looking up. Here's a chill celebration titled "Spring Tea Ceremony" by Oliver Shanti ...

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Billions and billions of tea leaves

We've been enjoying the newly revived "Cosmos," on Sundays, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. That this show, which celebrates science (at the just expense of creationist loons), airs on the Fox network is surprising, but welcome.

I'm old enough to remember watching the PBS original, with Carl Sagan. That calm inimitable voice opened new vistas of wonder — the perspective of that "pale blue dot" amid all those "billions and billions" of stars. Sobering, and inspiring. I read his novel, Contact, as a young boy; I still think the belated film adaption holds up.

So I'm pleased to see that Adagio sells two signature tea blends celebrating Sagan: one is called Carl Sagan's Day Off, an intriguing mix of white teas and blueberries; the other, Carl Sagan's Apple Pie, a galaxy of black tea and billions of spices (way too many). The Day Off sounds perfect for a weekend "Cosmos" marathon ...

p.s. If you've not heard it already, don't miss this great song featuring an AutoTuned Sagan.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Celebrating (and rating) the stovetop kettle

I've been using an electric kettle so long now that I'd forgotten some of the actual joy to be had from a stovetop kettle. I adore my plug-in boiler, with its precise temperature settings. But I do miss the whistle of the stovetopper, and the warmth of the flame. Then again, I'm not even sure I remember where my stovetop kettle is, come to think of it ...

A UK blogger named Mike, however, is celebrating all stovetop tea things on a new blog, Stove Top Kettles. He's got 15 models reviewed and rated thus far, and one of his top 5 is an espresso maker.

The other thing I forget about stovetop kettles: their beauty as art objects. Just paging through a gathering of kettles like this blog is a reminder of the captivating design that goes into creating them — certainly much more than the electrics. Like this beauty ...

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: No foolin'

No jokes here, just a Tuesday tea tune (they come in batches nowadays, don'tchaknow...) called "April Fool" by the Tea Cozies ...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Happy anniversary (to me)

For our anniversary — 20 years, yegods — my partner presented me with this great set of china ...

Not only is the pattern somehow modernist and classic, colorful and classy — from St. Petersburg, adding to my Russian collection — I adore the silhouette of the pot. The lid is just that slim gold stopper, almost like a bottle, and the spout is a great pour. The cups are perfectly weighted. J'adore.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

Herb gardening: the perfect nursery?

I finally found the nursery I've been searching for — for years.

Ever since reading Adelma Grenier Simmons' 1964 classic Herb Gardening in Five Seasons nearly 20 years ago, I've been summoning herbs from whatever patches of ground have been available to me. I'm on my fourth garden now, and Simmons' book has been the starting point for the planning of each plot. In previous locales, however, I never found a nursery catering to the wide selection of herbs my winter dreams demanded. Here in southern California, though, I found a good one, at long last.

Pearson's Gardens & Herb Farm is a sweet spot tucked into a hilly, twisty residential area of Vista, Calif., north of San Diego. Started in 1981, it's been a wholesale provider all that time until opening to retail just six years ago. They claim "the largest selection of herbs, spices, and ethnobotanicals in the state of California," and after spending three hours today wandering (OK, practically skipping) the crunchy gravel walkways among their rows upon rows of neatly arranged tables piled with flats I've no reason to doubt the claim. I enjoyed a nice long chat with owner Mark Pearson and made it home with 54 different plants.

Some photos from the nursery ...

The tea connections here: I enjoy herbal teas for many occasions and remedies — but I tend to prefer the fresh stuff. Unlike tea proper, herbs produced for infusion lose potency and flavor quickly. I've rarely been bowled over by herbal teas — save for cinnamon tea on a chilly night, that sublime experience of drinking cherry blossoms (ha, speaking of), and I do sometimes rely on my Everyday Detox — unless, frankly, they just came out of the ground. In particular, my ground. Lemon balm is a longtime favorite — fresh or dried, into the pot, heavenly. Thanks to Simmons, I've learned the sublimity of tea made with sage and/or rosemary. Good ol' mints and chamomiles, too, have calmed many an afternoon. I look forward to rebooting a from-the-garden-into-the-pot regimen this year.

Verbenas are favorites, too, and Pearson's sells more than a few, including pineapple verbena — which they've tagged directly as Moujean Tea, a name I'd not encountered before but is apparently common. It's practically a bonsai-worthy herb, the way it grows in tidy branches with small leaves, and bees love it. Despite its name, it brews up a floral, vanilla-flavored infusion. It's going to be all I can do to let the plants get established before I start plucking directly into my teapot.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Nutritional chart for teas

For those who might be into hardcore number-crunching, Ian Chun of Matcha Latte Media recently translated nutritional values published by the Japanese government on various types of Japanese teas, plus oolong and black tea for comparison. The extensive chart breaks down teas — leaves and the infusion — by energy, water content, protein, carbs, minerals, vitamins, and more. No doubt the numbers vary wildly from brew to brew, but this info can give a basic picture for those watching their intake.

See the chart here.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Tea plantings at San Diego Japanese Garden

San Diego's Japanese Friendship Garden hosted its annual Cherry Blossom Festival this weekend. It's been a long drought here in California, with only two measurable rains this winter, and while the trees struggled to put on their show it was still fairly breathtaing. The garden's coming alive again, though — not only are the plants growing and rejuvenating, but the garden itself is expanding. A significant construction project at the bottom of the canyon will result next year in a grand new tea house (the foundation is kinda huge!), a kitchen, meeting spaces, and an amphitheater.

That means extra plantings, too — including a tea garden!

Along the southeastern slope of the JFG's canyon, in the heart of Balboa Park, more than 1,500 tea plants have been planted. Like the cherry trees, these are special hybrids developed to survive in San Diego's drier climate. Here are some photos taken during my last couple of volunteer shifts at the garden ...

If the tea does well, the garden actually plans to table the bushes, then pluck and process the tea, for use during the garden's monthly Japanese tea ceremonies (usually the first Saturday each month; see the calendar).

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: Here's lookin' at you, kid

Tomorrow, my partner and I celebrate 20 years together. Love is a superlative experience, worthy of every poem and song it has inspired. Allow me this reach for my weekly offering — it's the Cowboy Junkies, performing "Anniversary Song" on one of my favorite music shows from my old sweet home, Chicago. The refrain for this one goes like this:

Well I've known all these things
and the joys that they can bring
And I'll share them all for a cup of coffee
and to wear your ring

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: A ’60s cuppa

Yeah — a big-beat, British invasion track from, uh, a German band called the Rattles. "We will be there after tea," they sing, where they will "drink from golden cups." A 1968 single ...

Monday, February 3, 2014

Canada's Teapot Rock

Sip your tea, gaze at this.
Sip your tea, imagine sipping your tea on this spot.
Sip your tea, believe that someday you will.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A fine idea!

(via and for sale thru society6)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tuesday tea tune: Y'all

Some down-home, easygoing strumming — coupled with beautiful images of summertime and sun-ripe tomatoes, for those shivering timbers this winter — from the Elms, in a song called "Bring Me Your Tea":

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New campus, new teas

No doubt you're like me — the first order of business upon relocating to a new workplace or school is to evaluate the available and nearby tea options. It took some doing, to my surprise, upon relocating to UC-San Diego. My previous campus, the Univ. of Illinois at Chicago, had a decent coffee stand next door to my office building, with loose-leaf tea options. It wasn't great quality, but it was at least loose-leaf and served with a modicum of care.

Now at UCSD I finally found (among the campus's plethora of coffee stands, noodle shacks, and even bars) the Muir Woods Coffee House. Basement location: awesome. Prices: lowest on campus (just a buck for a tall tea if you bring your own reusable mug). Loose-leaf teas: pretty great. Their main supplier is a tea joint in downtown SD, Cafe Virtuoso, with a fair stock of estate-grown picks. The English Breakfast is superb, with a fresh floral note that contributes to one's waking. Life-saving and life-enriching on beautiful SoCal winter mornings like this one ...