Chris Hitchens: Actually, Yoko Ono, That's Not How You Make Tea

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Christopher Hitchens returns from "the holidays" refreshed and ready to air his grievances with what, in his opinion, may have been the most controversial thing he read in The New York Times before Christmas. In honor of the anniversary of John Lennon's death, Yoko Ono shared a story about laughing with her husband while making tea not long before he was killed. The end of the story was really what got to Hitchens, wherein Lennon's aunt delivers the news they had been following the wrong tea making procedure the whole time--that, in fact, the water should go in before the bag.

"I simply hate to think of the harm that might result from this," Hitchens writes at Slate this week. In an effort to correct the error of Yoko's seemingly harmless op-ed before Beatles fans everywhere perpetuate the farce that is American tea-making, Hitchens carefully lays out, step by step, the recipe for a proper cup of tea. First, he points out just how ridiculous anyone who dunks a tea bag into an already-poured cup of hot water actually is. "Now, imagine that tea, like coffee, came without a bag (as it used to do--and still does if you buy a proper tin of it). Would you consider, in either case, pouring the hot water, letting it sit for a bit, and then throwing the grounds or the leaves on top? I thought not."

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From the type of pot or mug used, to the exact moment of transfer of the water from the flame, to the precise measurement of milk and sugar, Hitchens makes sure that no reader of his will ever misuse tea again. He urges:

Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea, don't be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It's not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word. And try it at home, with loose tea and a strainer if you have the patience. Don't trouble to thank me. Happy New Year.

Hitchens's lesson produced a few responses:

  • Right On  Fellow Slate Writer Tom Scocca agrees with Hitchens and clarifies that the point of his argument is not mere snobbery. "Please do not allow Hitchen's contrarian reputation, Englishness, ideological fervor, or disparagement of teabags to distract you from his essential message: the water must be boiling."
  • Imagine That  Surprised by Hitchens' strong interest in tea, Felix Salmon at Reuters quipped, "Hitchens, it turns out, sometimes drinks non-alcoholic beverages."
  • How to Find Good Tea in the States  Hitchens' post reminded The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan of his own English, tea-drinking roots. "Starbucks' London Fog or Earl Grey Tea Latte unsweetened is the best approximation of my mother's cup of cha that I have been able to find. Except she would proceed to add three teaspoons of sugar and one artificial sweetener," he commented.
  • Quibbles  Blogger Jake Seliger dares to question Hitchens' insistence on the necessity of a lengthy steeping process. He writes:
Here is my proposition for Hitchens and innumerable others: instead of insisting that one way is better, why not take the Coke-Pepsi challenge? Brew a large number of cups both ways, give them to a large number of people over a large number of occasions, and see which one works better? More likely than not, neither will work out. Based on the large amount of contradictory advice I've read regarding tea, I would guess that once one has a reasonably fresh, loose leaf and a reasonable knowledge of approximate brewing temperatures, the rest is superstition.

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