Since we’re on the topic of tea.
In the late 1970s I was living in Manhattan at 110th between Broadway and Amsterdam, just below Columbia University at the bottom of Harlem. At the time the neighborhood still had a lot of families, bodegas selling fresh produce at great prices and, long before Starbucks, coffee in to-go cups. They might also have prepared foods, pastries and sandwiches made to order from the deli meats they sold packed in among the imported snacks, cigarettes, lottery tickets, bags of spices, candy, notions, and religious candles. Some of these places had a small cafe table or two outside with folding chairs where neighbors could sit and chat, play dominos, or just rest weary feet after a long day.
Or in my case, before a long day. At the time I was working in restaurants and attending the New York Restaurant School on 34th street, directly across from the Empire State Building. That meant a long, crowded subway ride down each morning and back each night after many bruising hours on my feet, seven days a week.
I’d often grab a cup of pre-coffee, the one before my bottomless cup of coffee that took place on the line at the restaurant, at the bodega around the corner from my apartment building and across from the subway entrance. It was a small store offering strong, Bustelo coffee, which, heretic that I still am, I drank with hot milk and sugar. On rare mornings that I left my apartment with time to spare before the train, I’d sit at one of the tables for a few minutes and commune with my coffee.
This is what I was doing on a cool fall morning, desperately tired, mildly hungover, with my face over the wide mouth of the cardboard cup. My hands were warming on either side of it, resting on the table, as I looked down into the gently swirling brew, inhaling the caffeinated steam making its way up my nasal passages and into my brain. I heard shuffling footsteps approach and then stop just in front of me. I looked up.
“You look tired.”
The stranger who said this was looking at me dispassionately, as he might look at a lesser cut of veal, say, or a bottom-shelf vodka. He was in his late sixties with grey hair and pallor, wearing a fedora and a mobster overcoat that covered his barrel-shaped body. A dark grey wool scarf around his neck peaked out from under his coat. His black leather shoes had been doing the scuffling. He had a thick Russian accent.
“I am tired,” I said. He looked at me some more.
“Why are you dreenking out of that sheet?” He asked. “Life’s too short to dreenk out of that sheet. You should dreenk out of gless. Tastes moch better.”
“Yes, gless. Tea and coffee you should dreenk out of gless. Eez best.”
I felt my cup between my hands and looked at it. I looked back up at him. I had nothing to say. I didn’t want to offend either one of them. Then he walked away. After a few steps he shuffled to a stop again and he turned back to me.
“Plos you should get more sleep.”
And he left, turning the corner at the end of the block.
I finished my coffee and caught the subway to work. I set up at the line as always, but this time instead of the plastic quart container most of us used, I grabbed a beer glass for my coffee.
After my shift I walked to the Russian Tea room and into the little gift shop.
“Can I help you?” a suspicious woman asked. To be fair, I was the only person there, and I was wearing filthy kitchen whites smelling of that morning’s baked cod.
“Yes. Do you sell… glesses? Like for tea or coffee?”
She handed me what would have been a cheap diner juice glass, except we were at the Russian Tea Room so it cost $18.
“Is this the biggest they come? I like a lot more tea than that.”
She handed me a slightly larger glass, this one cut and theoretically crystal. It was $28.
“These seem like they’d burn your hand with hot tea in them,” I said.
“For that you need podstakannik.” She handed me a metal holder with a handle and a stamped, vaguely threatening design on the body. That was $45. A tenth of my month’s rent.
I took it. “Everything about this looks like it hurts. And it’s expensive.”
“That is Russian way.” She said. She held out a spoon, “Make sure you put spoon in when you pour in boiling water or glass will crack.”
“How much is the spoon?”
“Would any spoon work?”
“I can’t guarantee.”
“But will this one prevent the glass from cracking?”
I bought it all. That was nearly 45 years ago and I still have the spoon, glass, and the holder because when you put the glass inside the holder it makes a sound reminiscent of a guy eating milky cereal with his mouth wide open while scraping his teeth along a chalkboard, and once you get it in, it doesn’t lie flat, because the neck of the holder doesn’t really fit the glass so it can’t seat properly. I rarely use it.
But the old man was right. Nothing gives you the pure, clean flavor of the tea or coffee like glass does.
Those chunky glass restaurant and hotel banquet mugs break the “glass is good” rule. You can taste the residual desperation of the many previous lips that have clutched at their rims in order to avoid early morning “did you get my email” conversations, rehashing of last night’s drunken exploits at the bar, and requests for a personalized assessment of the presentation someone’s about to give. There’s no water hot enough to sanitize that.
It’s been tea and coffee out of gless for me ever since. I’m still working on the sleep.
The most commonly known Russian black tea is Russian Caravan tea, so named because it made its way to Russia via the years-long camel caravan routes. Those months hunkered in a camel’s pack by the campfires is supposedly what gave the tea its smoky flavor, and I completely buy that explanation. It certainly couldn’t have been mold, or dry-rot, or the droppings of rodents hitching a ride in saddle bags to stock up on a little caffeine before distributing the plague. So yes. Absolutely campfires.
The Russians don’t fuck around with tea. They use variations of the “chay” word for tea as it arrived over land, and In traditional preparations they make a pot of tea concentrate that would probably kill non-Russians if sipped straight. People then add hot water from a samovar to get to their preferred strength. To explain the full strength of the undiluted brew, drugs and booze are harshly cracked-down-on in Russian prisons - so they drink tea concentrate so strong it bends their brains. How strong does tea have to be to fuck you up?
I’m really glad I didn’t know this as a kid. I was eleven when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and my cousin and I made ourselves sick drinking matchboxes full of powdered nutmeg mixed in cold water to see what he was talking about. Russian prison tea would have probably killed us.
They like their tea sweet, with sugar, honey, or jam, and they sometimes drink their tea with a sugar cube between their teeth. But not just a sugar cube. Traditionally they’d take a nip off a sugar loaf. Think of it as circumcising an intercontinental ballistic missile with your teeth and then slowly washing your work down with a little tea.
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Damn you. All day long now I will be thinking about Russians drinking prison tea with Intercontinental Ballistic Sugar Suppositories between their teeth. Thanks, Sis.
Reminds me of my Bubbie, who held a sugar cube in her teeth, or some jam in her mouth, and drank her Orange Pekoe from her tea "gless". She didn't have a fancy, noisy setup like you. We got her special "gless" cups.