Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Adams and George Orwell on Cups of Tea

This morning, I had the pleasure of coming across an article on Slate, written by world famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, on “How To Make a Decent Cup of Tea” (inspired, in part by George Orwell’s 1946 “A Nice Cup of Tea“). It was a thoroughly entertaining read, and certainly told me a few things I didn’t know about the idiosyncrasies of the British tea-drinker.

Particularly humourous passages include the following, regarding his disdain for the way tea is served in his now-native United States:

“It’s quite common to be served a cup or a pot of water, well off the boil, with the tea bags lying on an adjacent cold plate. Then comes the ridiculous business of pouring the tepid water, dunking the bag until some change in color occurs, and eventually finding some way of disposing of the resulting and dispiriting tampon surrogate.”

And his ridicule of the standards set by our (Brits) second favourite hot beverage… the wonderful coffee!

“Until relatively few years ago, practically anything hot and blackish or brackish could be sold in America under the name of coffee. It managed both to be extremely weak and extremely bitter, and it was frequently at boiling point, though it had no call to be. (I use the past tense, though there are many places where this is still true, and it explains why free refills can be offered without compunction.) At least in major cities, consumers now have a better idea how to stick up for themselves, often to an irksome degree, as we know from standing behind people who are too precise about their latte, or whatever it’s called.”

Upon singing the praises of this article, my friend Alex chipped in with “I see your Hitchens and raise you Adams”, and directed me to the following article on Douglas Adams’ love of “A Proper Cup of Tea“. Another entertaining read, filled with a similar disdain for the typical American tea-making ability.

However, whilst these two idols (appropriate choice of words, no?) of mine seem to agree on most points regarding tea-making, there is one major point of contention. Adams writes:

“Some people will tell you that you shouldn’t have milk with Earl Grey, just a slice of lemon. Screw them. I like it with milk. If you think you will like it with milk, then it’s probably best to put some milk into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the tea. If you pour milk into a cup of hot tea, you will scald the milk.”

However, Hitchens writes:

“If you use milk, use the least creamy type or the tea will acquire a sickly taste. And do not put the milk in the cup first—family feuds have lasted generations over this—because you will almost certainly put in too much. Add it later, and be very careful when you pour.”

Clearly taking his cue from Orwell, who wrote:

“One should pour tea into the cup first. This is one of the most controversial points of all; indeed in every family in Britain there are probably two schools of thought on the subject. The milk-first school can bring forward some fairly strong arguments, but I maintain that my own argument is unanswerable. This is that, by putting the tea in first and stirring as one pours, one can exactly regulate the amount of milk whereas one is liable to put in too much milk if one does it the other way round.”

What are we to do? What am I to think? My family always put milk in the cup first… I always put the milk in after. But then I am a heathen and make my tea with a teabag in the mug. Oh the dramas which occupy our middle-class lives, eh?

I think in this, as in all other tea related matters, I shall defer to my dear friend and unassailable expert tea-drinker, Samuel. Perhaps I shall invite him to respond to these three literary greats. [UPDATE: In fact, I did… you can read his response here.]

Samuel ensured that we all had a constant supply of tea during the "get in" for a production of "The Mikado"

Looking through Orwell’s 11 “outstanding points” on tea, I would emphatically agree with the following:

“Tea should be made in small quantities — that is, in a teapot. Tea out of an urn is always tasteless, while army tea, made in a cauldron, tastes of grease and whitewash. The teapot should be made of china or earthenware. Silver or Britanniaware teapots produce inferior tea and enamel pots are worse; though curiously enough a pewter teapot (a rarity nowadays) is not so bad.”

I don’t think I have EVER had a good cup of tea that has come out of an urn… cafeterias and burger vans take note.

However, I think he is being somewhat harsh when he pens:

“Tea — unless one is drinking it in the Russian style — should be drunk without sugar. I know very well that I am in a minority here. But still, how can you call yourself a true tealover if you destroy the flavour of your tea by putting sugar in it? It would be equally reasonable to put in pepper or salt. Tea is meant to be bitter, just as beer is meant to be bitter. If you sweeten it, you are no longer tasting the tea, you are merely tasting the sugar; you could make a very similar drink by dissolving sugar in plain hot water.”

Drinking tea with sugar was certainly something that I grew out of a long time ago, though it was only thanks to tea with lashings of sugar at my Grannie’s that allowed me to appreciate tea in the first place. However, sugar in a nice cup of Chai Tea rarely goes amiss… and you can’t beat some Peppermint Tea and Honey… although Orwell wouldn’t have approved: “there is not much stimulation in it. One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it” – I think I would disagree on the optimism part!

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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

3 responses to “Christopher Hitchens, Douglas Adams and George Orwell on Cups of Tea”

  1. Michel S. says :

    A friend of mine posted the Slate article to Facebook last month, and I was just Googling for it again and found your blog. Thanks for the link to Salmon of Doubt!

    Your blog topic sounds interesting, so I’ll probably be dropping in to comment from time to time — I have a not to dissimilar (sorry, Orwell, it’s hard to strictly follow your Politics and the English Language) religious upbringing, and ended up moving from Episcopalianism to Unitarianism (after several back-and-forth between the two). Not sure I’ll ever be entirely agnostic, let alone atheistic, though.

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