Monday, March 28, 2016

El Niño—or then again, perhaps not.

El Niño, March ‘16

“Ha, ha, ha" chortled the weatherman; "you can never say 'definitely' in weather forecasting, but this winter's El Niño looks like a done deal. There‘s no way it can’t happen.” Instantly, signs sprouted along the roadways: Get your sandbags here! We have emergency rations, and you're gonna need them!! Water! Matches! Firewood! Stock Up NOW!!!" After five years of crippling drought, we in Southern California were ecstatic. A water bonanza! What could possibly go wrong?

Obviously something did, or I wouldn’t be writing this. "El Niño", the little boy charged with the important job of bringing water to the parched West Coast of the United States of America, has apparently been waylaid by a meteorological old man in a scruffy raincoat, handing out candy in the Seattle area. (Seattle has enjoyed its wettest winter on record, thank you very much.) El Niño continues his journey south, lavishing water on the Oregon coast (as if they need it) and Northern California (ditto, but at least it keeps the redwoods and marijuana plants happy); but just about the time that he reaches San Luis Obispo, about 100 miles north of Ojai where I live in desiccated splendor, the after effects of his sugar high kick in. He curls up, exhausted, and falls fast asleep.

This is why, in the massive face of this record El Niño, Ojai’s rainfall total for the year is precisely .05" higher than last year. That's right; one half of one tenth of an inch. There is still hope: our alleged "rainy season" lasts until the end of April. Maybe in the next few weeks, having indulged his sweet tooth, El Niño will deign to come on down to SoCal and dump at least 20 inches of blessed rainfall on our thirsty landscape.

Otherwise, I’m afraid the weathermen are going to have to eat their words. And since there won’t be any cooling draft of H20 to wet their pipes, I'm sorry to say that I hope they choke on them.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Perfect Cup of Tea: Part the Third.

What You Will Need: One ceramic teapot; cups or mugs of fine bone china; tea bags or, for the purist, loose-leaf tea; a small jug of 4% milk; sugar lumps and tongs.

Fill the kettle with enough water for as many cups of tea as you desire. Bear in mind that there is a drought here in Southern California, and refrain from filling the pot for an entire rugger team if all you want is one cup for yourself. Even if there is no drought where you live, there very well could be. Besides, using power to heat all that water just to throw it away doesn't make sense. End of politically correct admonition.

Bring the water to a full, rolling boil. What is that? Let me tell you what it is not: if you see little bubbles all around the edge politely popping as if to say, Will this do? The answer is an emphatic no, it will not. If the entire contents of the kettle are seething with bubbles that refuse to give up, that's more like it! Notice that the bubbles keep popping as you remove the kettle from the source of heat and take it to….

… Oh crumbs, I forgot about the tea! While the kettle is coming to the boil, heat the pot with water from the hot tap. This will take no more than two minutes. Drought hint number two: use the teapot water to heat the cups or mugs. What should these be made of? There is little doubt in my mind that tea tastes better drunk from bone china. There is equally little doubt that the more expensive china has been crossed with lemmings: put it anywhere near the edge of a table and it will hurtle to its doom the second your back is turned. Thwart its self-destructive tendencies by purchasing pre-used cups from the thrift store, and save the best stuff until you have friendly eyes to help you watch over it and there are no happy Great Dane tails wagging enthusiastically at prime teacup level.

A word about cleanliness: the saying, "what the eye don't see, the heart don't grieve for" might have been made for teapots. Why else would a Brown Betty be brown, if not to hide the thin patina of scum remaining from previous brews? (Relish, if you will, "patina" and "scum" appearing in the same sentence. If you look up "patina" you'll see that it's a bit of a stretch applied to a ceramic teapot since it usually describes metal, but anything in the cause of tea, wouldn't you agree?) The same cannot, however, be said of teacups; these must be scrupulously clean and, drought or no drought, equally scrupulously rinsed. There's nothing more destructive to an ace cuppa than the chemical tang of dish soap.

My favorite tea is Taylors of Harrogate Yorkshire Blend, which I buy from Amazon in boxes of 160 bags, and very good it is, indeed it is. My husband Robin, on the other hand, swears by Barry’s Irish. The funny thing is that blind taste tests have proved that neither one of us can tell the difference, yet we stick faithfully to our avowed favorite.  Both are best when allowed to steep no more than ten minutes; theoretically, tea bags can more readily be removed than loose leaves; I wish I could say that I do so with any regularity.

I close with two anecdotes that illustrate rather different tastes in tea strength. When breakfasting in a B&B in Clonmacnoise, Eire, Robin was offered a pot of tea with his full Irish breakfast. Somewhat to his surprise, the waitress produced a little tin teapot from her apron pocket and asked him in all seriousness, “Will you be taking five bags or six?” Without skipping a beat, he opted for six.

On the other extreme, my mother was helping the Ladies’ Guild of her church in Everett, Washington, as they prepared tea for a social function. Quite a number of guests were expected, and the Enormous Ceremonial Urn was brought out and filled with (almost) boiling water. The person in charge of teabags dug out from the back of a cupboard a half-empty box of Lipton’s that looked as if it had been there for years; having unwrapped the first, she reached for a second, saying brightly, “I don’t think two would be too many, do you?”

It’s as well my mother had no liquid in her mouth at the time, or it would have surely ended up sprayed through her nose. Many’s the chuckle we’ve enjoyed over that story: “To each his own,” indeed!         

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Perfect Cup of Tea: Part The Second

The finest cup of tea I ever tasted was made for me by Mrs. Taylor. Tiny and silver-haired when I was born, to my eyes she aged not a day until her last illness twenty-eight years later. She lived in Winchester, near the cathedral immortalized in song by the New Vaudeville Band, and it was there that I arrived by train to visit her one drear afternoon in October,

Preparation for The Taking Of The Tea (I soon realized that tea prepared with such painstaking attention to detail demanded a formal title) began in her clean but comfortably lived-in kitchen. (I should mention that Mrs. Taylor was the only person I knew whose house never needed cleaning—at least I presumed it didn’t, since it was never dirty nor did I ever once see her with a dust rag in hand.) On the tea tray went a cloth of white linen with an exquisite cutwork embroidery design, and two matching napkins. The cloth was almost obscured by two teacups of finest bone china in a delicate floral pattern, a matching milk jug, a bowl to catch the drips from the tea strainer, a teapot complete with elegant cozy, and a thermal jug whose function was as yet shrouded in mystery.

In the kitchen, I witnessed Mrs. Taylor warming the pot, then adding a quantity of tea leaves so surprisingly large that I wondered fleetingly whether she had been taking lessons from the keepers at Bristol Zoo. I was greatly relieved when, in the comfort of the sitting room, our chairs on either side of the fireplace and the tray on the small table between us, it turned out that the thermos flask was full of just-below-boiling-point water that she used to dilute the extraordinarily strong output of the teapot. There was something almost mesmerizing about watching her pour, first the milk, then the incredibly strong tea, then the very hot water, until the cup was the exact taste I preferred. Oh, I'm forgetting the sugar! Mrs. Taylor was well aware I did not take sugar, and she certainly knew that neither did she, but there was a bowl of sugar lumps, complete with tongs, to spare me the embarrassment of having to ask, "just in case" I had changed my mind.

Gradually I became aware that I was witnessing a ceremony from a bygone era. The goal was not, as is the norm today, the speedy production of a large quantity of tea to be slurped from hefty ceramic mugs, but rather the making of individual, six ounce cups of tea, each one perfectly tailored to its intended drinker.

There didn't seem to be quite enough air in the room. At least, as I sat up ramrod straight, frantically trying to avoid disappointing her expectations of a tea guest, I found it hard to breathe; in retrospect, I can relate to the female actors of Downton Abbey who described how restrictive their crushingly tight corsets were. It’s hard to misbehave when you can scarcely breathe!

The funny thing, looking back, is that it was all about love, though the word was never spoken.  It was love that lay behind Mrs. Taylor’s extraordinary attention to detail in giving me a tea experience that remains vivid thirty-five years later; it was love that made me so desperately eager to please her in return. I imagine she fed me sandwiches and delectable little tea cakes, but I honestly don’t remember.
The love was in the teapot, and that’s what I recall.     

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Perfect Cup of Tea - Part The First

How may I approach such an exalted topic? Do I dare presume to add to the reams already penned on the subject? Perhaps the via negativa is the way to go, since for some reason it seems easier to state what a thing is not than what it is: and so, ladies and gentlemen, I give you My Two Worst Ever Cups of Tea.

How well I remember my first cuppa in America: the memory pains me deeply, indeed, the wounds have scarcely healed after all these years. The waitress seemed to smirk as she delivered me a stone cold cup and saucer, on which lay a dispirited-looking teabag still in its paper envelope. Next to it, a small metal teapot betrayed no reassuring signs of heat; indeed, I could touch it quite comfortably with my bare fingertips.
Now, the first and cardinal rule of making tea, dinned into me since early childhood by every significant adult in my life, is this: Always Use Freshly Boiling Water.
Aghast at such a flagrant breaking of this law, but keenly aware that every passing second only made matters worse, I hastened the tea bag from its envelope into the cup. As expected, when I added the "boiling" contents of the teapot, the only perceptible change was a slight staining of the water in the immediate vicinity of the tea bag. Leaving it for several minutes did little to help, and neither did the addition of the synthetic contents of the little plastic pot of “creamer”.

It was the most insipid cup of tea I have ever had the misfortune to drink.

At the opposite end of the tea-making spectrum lies the choice brew served up by the zookeepers at Bristol Zoo. In his youth, my brother Ian (same name as our Eldest Son Iain, just with a different spelling) got a summer job tending the zoo’s animal inhabitants, and among his tasks was that of Chief Teamaker for the Animal Keepers’ Tea Break.  As he was to discover, there was quite an art to this, a strict protocol that came as something of a shock to Ian’s system, and had to be followed to the letter.
First, the pot. This was lined with a thick, tannin-rich scum, built up over years (decades?) of use and no cleaning whatsoever. Ian’s life nearly came to an untimely end the day he tried to help by giving the pot a good scour . . . His vocabulary was greatly enlarged that day, but there weren’t too many places he was welcome to try it out: certainly not at the Prentice family dinner table.
Next, the tea leaves which had to be PGTips (loose, of course—no sissy teabags for this rugged bunch.) How many teaspoons? Well, there’s a daft question! Just pour in the right amount, straight from the packet. If your spoon can stand up in the finished slurry, it’s strong enough. At this stage, milk and sugar were added and the whole given a thorough stir before the final stage: filling the pot with freshly boiling water (at last, something we can agree on!) stirring it once more and leaving it to steep for at least fifteen minutes to allow the full glory of the tannins to develop. Not tannic acid, mind you; this is not found in tea. Tannins, or thearubigins, are found a-plenty, and may cause antioxidant activity. Hooray! Tea’s a health food—I always knew as much!

Somewhere between these two extremes lies the magical brew favored by Mrs. Patmore, Agatha Christie (“Tea! Bless ordinary everyday afternoon tea!") as well as by my Welsh grandmother, whose every afternoon was punctuated at 4 o’clock on the dot by a singsong, “Now what I’d like is a nice cup of tea.” All other activity came to a halt until Gran had her Willow Pattern teacup in hand and an episode of The Archers, an early farming soap opera that she followed faithfully, on the radio.

But what went into making that daily cup of ambrosia will have to wait until Part The Second.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

"Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits": Part the First, March 2016

You can take the mother out of the homeschool, but you can’t take the homeschooler out of this mother . . . especially when it comes to (ta-da) . . . Unit Studies!
Take this morning, for instance, when I happened upon the seemingly innocuous phrase, “Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits.”
Harmless enough, you may think . . . But not for a home-educating parent who thinks in unit studies. She would take this phrase and milk it for every possible drop of teaching content. You will be surprised how much there is!

Let me show you how it works for me, in hopes that you’ll find something you can use, or at least be infected by my enthusiasm. Let’s start with:
1)   “Goodbye”: the word originated in the late 1500’s; “Godbwye,” a contraction of “God be with ye”, was soon further shortened to a simple “goodbye.“ To find the reason behind this truncation, have the whole family say godbwye every time they leave the house—or just a room—for one day. Which is easier to say, godbwye or “bye”? Is anything lost in the simplification?
2)   “Thank you” and gifts: thank you letters always made me feel sick with guilt; I knew my children should write them, and I really meant to make them, but so much got in the way … End result, everybody felt bad, (especially me) and the letters never got written.
Now that I have 20/20 hindsight, I can do it right: I create a “Thank You Box” with paper, stickers, crayons, envelopes and postage stamps, and make producing one thank you letter per day part of every school day till they are all done. (I find that glitter helps.) The box makes it easy for the children, while envelopes and stamps make addressing and mailing easy for me until the children are old enough to do it themselves. I call attention to articles about letter-writing going out of style, and the children feel proud to be different.
We have fun brainstorming situations where thanks are appropriate.  These include Worship of God; thanks for gifts (of time, kindness, money, physical things etc.) Who do we suppose wrote the first thank you letter? What did it look like? Might it have been a scratch on a rock? A whale tooth? A feather? (I like that—a thank you feather!) When have I been particularly touched by a gift? Can I give a gift like that to someone I love? Do gifts always have to cost money? 

Google and read out loud the poem ‘Bobby’s Presents’ by Elsie Duncan Yale. Bobby buys things he wants for himself, and gives them to his family members—a baseball for mother, a bat for daddy, a jack-knife for baby . . . Being a thoughtful chap, he realizes that these gifts may not be entirely suitable right now, so he’ll borrow them—just for a while . . .
The poem is, of course, intended to be humorous. But I have a friend whose husband and two adult sons really like Games of Thrones, and just guess what she got for Mother’s Day last year? (and, I believe, her birthday as well!)Perhaps her husband should have read ‘Bobby’s Presents’ as a boy.

So I only got through goodbye and thank you; that’s what happens with unit studies.
Tune in next time to discover what happens . . . beyond the rabbit-proof fence!