Ten years ago, after a whirlwind romance, I married an American and announced I was moving to Kansas.
"Kansas?" my friends gasped. "Have you lost your senses, Eileen?"
Our limited knowledge of the Sunflower State came from "The Wizard of Oz" and unflattering references to Kansas City in "Oklahoma."
During my 30 years of working in and around London, I enjoyed going to theaters, art galleries and museums. These visits included obligatory stops at several of the thousands of tea shops dotted around the Capital City.
"From London to Kansas?" my friends repeated constantly. "Do they even drink tea over there?"
Grand old theaters and museums might be done without, but not a decent cup of tea. Drinking tea is at the heart of British culture. In Ireland, a cup of tea, accompanied by a biscuit (translate cookie) or a piece of cake, was an obligatory part of any home visit.
Two of my siblings lived in America, so I knew getting a fine cup of tea was challenging. Luckily for me, they had already found THE places to get a decent cuppa (translate "cup of tea") in San Francisco and Houston so I felt "at home." My brother succumbed to American culture and drank various types of coffee; my sister stayed loyal to tea. A three-hour shopping jaunt required at least two tea stops, and often four.
One of our phrases was, "I feel a wee cuppa coming on." This signaled our need to sit awhile for tea and conversation.
In London, ordering tea is simple.
Without ado, a hot teapot, a separate pot of boiled water and a jug of milk will reach the table. The classier tea shops will preheat a china tea pot before placing the black tea leaves in it; fancy herbal teas are rarely offered. A silver tea strainer completes the ensemble. Ahhh! Total bliss. All was right with the world at such moments.
My August arrival in Lawrence, in 104 temperatures, presented many challenges. In restaurants, requests for tea translated into iced tea. I remembered my friends' warnings. I HAD lost my senses. I wasn't "at home." The saga of searching for a decent brew began.
"Hot tea. With milk, please."
"Hot tea?" the server repeated; then, with emphasis, "HOT tea?"
The look and tone said, "Don't you know it's over 100 degrees outside?"
Eventually the tepid tea arrived, with half-and-half. No self-respecting Irish woman would put that in tea.
"Could I have milk, please?"
"There's the milk."
"No, that's half-and-half. I want proper milk."
"Just a second."
Five minutes later, when the tea was cold, the milk arrived. I wept. My husband was perplexed.
"Crying over a cup of tea?" he unwisely asked.
"It's not about the tea," I sniffed, "it's about feeling at home. I can't feel at home in Kansas until I can get a decent pot of HOT tea without all this palaver."
Things have improved slowly, but I still need to be very clear with my request for milk. I usually say something like:
"Milk please. Do you have a skim or a 2 percent? If not, whole milk would be fine, too." When I mention milk for the third time, the picture becomes clearer. The occasional dish of half-and-half still appears in spite of my best efforts. I am still yearning to find that perfect pot of well-brewed tea in Kansas. The search may be symbolic of something else - perhaps a need to feel truly "at home" in the heartland of America?
In 10 years, the number of coffee shops in Lawrence has quadrupled. Coincidence? In the next few months, I will visit some of these establishments and rate them on their cuppa expertise, service and ambiance. Like you, I now have a few favorite haunts where I am known by name and tea requirements, but I want to explore other places around the area, including the ones you frequent. I hope to meet you there, share fun conversation, chat about good tea or coffee, and what makes a particular coffee/tea house a special place to gather - or escape to.
Please let me have some of your recommendations, and I will try to include them in future columns.