Caitlin Dickson at The Atlantic with the round-up.
Yoko Ono at The New York Times:
JOHN and I are in our Dakota kitchen in the middle of the night. Three cats — Sasha, Micha and Charo — are looking up at John, who is making tea for us two.
Sasha is all white, Micha is all black. They are both gorgeous, classy Persian cats. Charo, on the other hand, is a mutt. John used to have a special love for Charo. “You’ve got a funny face, Charo!” he would say, and pat her.
“Yoko, Yoko, you’re supposed to first put the tea bags in, and then the hot water.” John took the role of the tea maker, for being English. So I gave up doing it.
It was nice to be up in the middle of the night, when there was no sound in the house, and sip the tea John would make. One night, however, John said: “I was talking to Aunt Mimi this afternoon and she says you are supposed to put the hot water in first. Then the tea bag. I could swear she taught me to put the tea bag in first, but …”
“So all this time, we were doing it wrong?”
We both cracked up. That was in 1980. Neither of us knew that it was to be the last year of our life together.
Christopher Hitchens at Slate:
I simply hate to think of the harm that might result from this. It is already virtually impossible in the United States, unless you undertake the job yourself, to get a cup or pot of tea that tastes remotely as it ought to. 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. The drink itself is then best thrown away, though if swallowed, it will have about the same effect on morale as a reading of the memoirs of President James Earl Carter
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. Try it once, and you will never repeat the experience, even if you have a good strainer to hand. In the case of coffee, it might just work if you are quick enough, though where would be the point? But ground beans are heavier and denser, and in any case many good coffees require water that is just fractionally off the boil. Whereas tea is a herb (or an herb if you insist) that has been thoroughly dried. In order for it to release its innate qualities, it requires to be infused. And an infusion, by definition, needs the water to be boiling when it hits the tea. Grasp only this, and you hold the root of the matter.
If you use a pot at all, make sure it is pre-warmed. (I would add that you should do the same thing even if you are only using a cup or a mug.) Stir the tea before letting it steep. But this above all: “[O]ne should take the teapot to the kettle, and not the other way about. The water should be actually boiling at the moment of impact, which means that one should keep it on the flame while one pours.” This isn’t hard to do, even if you are using electricity rather than gas, once you have brought all the makings to the same scene of operations right next to the kettle.
It’s not quite over yet. 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. Finally, a decent cylindrical mug will preserve the needful heat and flavor for longer than will a shallow and wide-mouthed—how often those attributes seem to go together—teacup. Orwell thought that sugar overwhelmed the taste, but brown sugar or honey are, I believe, permissible and sometimes necessary.
Patrick Kingsley at The Guardian:
As Hitchens himself acknowledges, his analysis places him within a canon of tea-based literature that dates back to George Orwell. But though Hitch is broadly in agreement with Orwell’s take on tea, the pair do deviate on some crucial matters. Hitch feels that Orwell’s preference for china teapots and “Indian or Ceylonese” tealeaf is outmoded. And while Orwell argues that it is “misguided” to add sugar, for Hitch, “brown sugar or honey are, I believe, permissible and sometimes necessary”.
But Hitch’s closing remarks are ones that Orwell would surely not quibble with. “Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent and want some tea,” he writes, “don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It’s NOT what you asked for.”
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.
Nate Freeman at The New York Observer:
When Chistopher Hitchens pontificates on the subject of beverage, it’s a safe bet to assume it’s concerning alcohol. Up until his diagnosis with cancer and subsequent chemo, Hitch would consume no less than a bottle of wine and few gulps of whiskey per day, he wrote in Hitch-22. And tales of larger excess are out there, even encouraged by the man. But we are greeted in Slate today by a tempered Hitch, one who simply wants to share with his readers the proper way to make tea. And no, spiking it with liquor is not part of the recipe (though feel free to make an amendment or two!).
Tom Scocca at Slate:
I applaud Christopher Hitchens’ tea-making instructions, including his tactful decision to give Yoko Ono a grace period before correcting the misinformation she had published in the New York Times in John Lennon’s name. Tea goes in first.
Please do not allow Hitchens’ contrarian reputation, Englishness, ideological fervor, or disparagement of teabags to distract you from his essential message: the water must be boiling.
This is not about being finicky or snobbish. The boiling-water rule applies at every level of quality. A cheapo Lipton teabag needs and deserves fully boiling water every bit as much as a handful of top-grade single-plantation Assam does. A cup of black tea made with less-than-boiling water is like a hamburger that’s still cold in the middle. Whether it’s a McDonald’s burger or a gourmet burger is beside the point.