Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tea and Books Saturday #7 - "A Decent Cup of Tea"

A Decent Cup of Tea
By Malachi McCormick
Clarkson Potter, 1991

Malachi McCormick's mother was once on the Cork-Dublin train in Ireland when she was served a plastic cup of some dark, watery, brown brew. She said to the waiter, "Is this tea or coffee?" and the incident inspired her son to write the amusing and short little book "A Decent Cup of Tea." That phrase, in fact, has come to be associated with McCormick, seeker of decent tea and the only author I know of who has a Harney tea named in his honor. Sometimes now when I see "a decent cup of tea" mentioned in books or magazine articles, set off in quotes like that, I assume it is the writer's nod to McCormick's well-known book. Its 80 pages--and mine are attractive, thick, flecked-paper pages--can be read in one sitting. The book gives info on the history of tea, different types of tea, how to select teas and teapots, How to Make a Decent Cup of Tea, going out to tea, and books on tea. (There are also a few paragraphs on reading tea leaves, but that's a bit of hocus-pocus I don't happen to care for.)

McCormick's is the first book I've seen to suggest tea has been grown before in my home state of Georgia. "In 1858," writes McCormick, "the U.S. government sent Robert Fortune, a horticulturist, to China for seeds of Camellia sinensis, and these were later given out free to planters in the South. Some bushes grew in the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee, but there was no commercial production." He does go on to note the efforts which continue today at the Charleston Tea Plantation, although he admits he did not much care for their American Classic Tea that he sampled.

McCormick is quite opinionated in this book, and at times I agreed with him and at times I did not. When he questions the sacred Shen Nung tea "discovery" story, I found myself nodding in agreement. ("And what, we might inquire, was water being boiled for, if tea had not already been invented?" he says. Here, here!) But then he has to go and take exception with the tea blenders who claim "the main reason for blending is to achieve consistency of taste," which McCormick calls "utter hogwash" but which I long ago accepted as a reasonable explanation for this process. I'd love to know HIS plan for making my Twinings Earl Grey taste the same year after year after year, since he is opposed to blending! Happily, though, McCormick unruffles my feathers at book's end by including some good, easy recipes, including one for crumpets which I have tried before with much success. Kind of hard to believe this much fun was packed into one lovely little 80-page book, isn't it?


  1. I have this book, too and I really enjoyed it. I love opinionated people.

  2. I must live a sheltered tea life. This is another tea book I haven't heard of. Sounds interesting.

  3. Sounds like an interesting read. I read a newspaper article a long time ago about the Charleston tea plantation and it mentioned tea being tried in other states in the US. Too bad the plants didn't thrive here. I really want to visit the Charleston plantation on day.

  4. I haven't seen that book before. Sounds very entertaining. I must agree with Mr. McCormick's assessment of American Classic Tea, however, I did enjoy my visit to the plantation.

  5. nice post. thanks.


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