Coffee or Tea?

I love to smell coffee — such a deep, rich, seductive aroma. Assuming, of course, that it’s not burned and thus acrid in both smell and taste. And I enjoy a good strong cup of coffee – black, no sugar. Or a wonderful expresso. Sometimes, though, a cappuccino is just what I want. Most often, though, I order a mocha light. I mean, how can you resist coffee and chocolate together?

Despite the fact that I grew up in South Louisiana, one of the coffee-culture capitals of the world, I came to coffee only as an adult. I’ve been drinking coffee a few times a week only for about twenty years. Yet I am very particular about what coffee should be, what I like.

My sister, though, is a different case. When she was still a baby, we gave her coffee milk in her bottle, more milk than coffee, to be sure. Yet by the time Kay was in high school, she had to have a cup of strong coffee first thing in the morning.

We always had a pot of coffee ready. The first pot went on just before Dad got up to go to work, and he and Mother started their day with a couple of cups. Then by mid-morning, it was coffee-klatch time when Mother and other women got together at one house. At mid-afternoon, another pot went on for when Dad came home and another coffee group got together. If we had company or company dropped over — more coffee.

I can remember visiting one family in particular, and when we got there Rose always asked if Mother and Dad would like “a small black,” as a tiny cup of Cajun coffee was called. I still have demitasse cups and spoons that remind me of how such coffee was served.

Of course, when we first moved to South Louisiana from Texas, the coffee Mother and Dad made tended to be weak — “Texas coffee,” as Dad came to refer to it. Since Dad grew up in East Texas, he had to come to appreciate dark-roast coffee. Mother, though, grew up with her grandparents making coffee the old-fashioned Cajun way — boiled in a white enamel pot on the stove. To this day, I can close my eyes and imagine my great-grandparents’ home in Beaumont by the odor of coffee alone. No matter what time of day you entered the front door, that odor lingered from recently made coffee or from coffee that was on the stove. My cousin Carolyn has that coffee pot.

Despite coming to coffee relatively late in life, I want strong coffee sometimes, just as I knew growing up. But I limit myself — too much coffee and my stomach rebels.

My personal go-to beverage? Tea. Hot tea. My Grandmother Ware, the farm wife, drank hot tea, and that’s what got me hooked. Plain Lipton’s tea was what she usually had, and so that’s what I drank too. As I got older and expanded my tastes, I came to appreciate a wide variety of tea, not always in a bag. Earl Grey may be my favorite — the pop of the bergamot perks me right up. A nice strong English breakfast tea is what I want sometimes. Other times, I crave a soothing Lapsang Souchong. Green teas. Black teas. Citrus teas. Caffeinated, non-caffeinated. I just love tea, period.

When I traveled this summer to both London and Istanbul, I returned from each place with loose teas.

The first time I was in England in summer 1974, I spent six weeks in Stratford-upon-Avon at a Shakespeare Summer School, plus a week or so in London. That was when my tea-drinking was cemented. Every class day at 10 or so, we had a 30-minute tea break. I’d head for a tea shop near the place where we had lectures every morning (and seminars two afternoons a week). Sometimes I’d have tea later that day as well, someplace else, or at the bed-and-breakfast where I was lodging. I could easily dispense of an entire pot of tea all by myself.

That was the first time I realized that I could get the shakes from too much tea. I learned to pace myself and cut back. I didn’t need to be jittery.

Of course, tea shops in England mean pastries and other goodies. And I learned about cream teas and Devonshire cream and clotted cream for scones. Quickly, I learned that unlike a lot of people, I don’t like milk in my tea, not at all. If I bought tea at some places, I quickly learned to respond “black” when I was asked “black or white?” after not responding fast enough. After a couple of milky teas, I knew that was not for me.

Afternoon teas were quite different from morning teas. That’s when tiny sandwiches were often served — cucumber or salmon or chicken salad. On white bread at some places, on brown bread at others (and depending on the filling).

Such a world of difference from my grandmother’s tea. I’d have that with biscuits and butter and syrup (either Steen’s cane syrup or Blackburn-Made syrup).

She drank hot tea year round, and so did I. Of course, she also routinely made sweet iced tea year round, so I drank that too. Now I limit how much sugar goes into my hot tea, and I have reluctantly learned to drink my iced tea without sugar at all. I’ve even learned to use fresh mint leaves in my iced tea (and in my water as well).

And so I am, without hesitation, a tea-sipper. Despite being a graduate of Texas A&M. Important facts to know: (and with apologies to my Texas A&M friends and relatives): and note to non-Texan friends — in Texas, a “T-sipper” is a reference to someone who attends or attended the University of Texas. Texas A&M and the University of Texas are mighty rivals.

That love has resulted in two collections: tea cups/saucers and teapots. As much as I like tea, I like to switch teapots often. Sometimes my mood calls for an Aynsley Cottage Garden teapot that matches one of my sets of china. Sometimes, I use a plain dark-blue pot. Recently, I brought a new one home from London, just for the beach.

Among my many books — a collection of books about tea, about making tea, about recipes for different kinds of teas. An entirely different set of notes — about how else to use tea. For example, you can use strongly brewed tea as a dye for linens, to achieve an antiqued look.

On rainy days, especially rainy days when it’s chilly, nothing quite soothes the soul like a pot of tea and some scones. I’ll settle down with a good cozy mystery and pretend I’m in some English village. Only warmer, of course.

Lately I’ve been craving some tea. Especially this week, when it’s rained a couple of days. The temperature’s still in the 90s, but some places I hang out keep the thermostat so low that I need a sweater and can pretend it’s winter already. Today, for example, I had a big cup of Earl Grey tea. That just hit the spot.

One of my favorite photographs is one taken in the 50s. I’m sitting with my cousins Carolyn and Terry in their living room. We’re joined in the photo by a dog and their pet rabbit. The rabbit, need I say, was not always friendly. We’re having a tea party. Pets too.

Many years later, when my brother Phil was in M.D. Anderson Hospital shortly before he died, Carolyn and Terry and I went to Old Town Spring in North Houston, to a teashop patterned after an English teashop. That particular day, it was raining, and it was, I remember, sometime in November or December. We had tea, complete with sandwiches and little sweet pastries. No pets, though. Just the three of us, all grown up. It’s a great memory, especially since Terry isn’t alive anymore. Carolyn and I still like to have teatime and talk, though.

Coffee? Yes, sometimes.

Tea? Oh please. Almost anytime.

This weekend? I think a visit to Dannay’s for croissants and donuts might be called for when I head back to the beach. Just right for a big pot of tea and a nice mystery.

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