Cuppa Comfort

By | June 19, 2014

The teakettle exhales. I toss the daily paper on the kitchen counter and rush to quiet the piercing pitch. Tilting the kettle, I flush just enough steamy water into the mossy green teapot to warm it up, then douse boiling water over three scoops of tea. I prefer loose tea to tea bags. The flavor is fuller. Sorry, Thomas Sullivan, the inventor of the tea bag. I read somewhere that a pound of loose tea yields 160 cups. Anyway, the ceremonious act of measuring is part of my morning ritual.

While the tea steeps from three to five minutes and the tightly curled leaves unfurl in the boiling water, I survey my assorted collection of mugs. Smaller mugs nest inside larger ones. Others teeter astride the rims of their peers. Handles reach in all directions. I really do need a better system. Maybe I should add an additional shelf or hooks to hang the mugs to protect them from getting chipped. If a mug gets chipped, it’s ousted.

I could choose a teacup and saucer but I prefer the informality of a mug for everyday use. Mugs hold more. Their handles are full and sturdy. Japanese teacups don’t have handles. I’ve been told that it’s a practical method of gauging the temperature of the tea. If the cup is too hot to hold, the tea is too hot to drink. With a mug you can choose to use the handle or not. I’m right handed so when I hold a mug by the handle I grip it with my right hand. Sometimes I wrap my hands around the mug and tuck my fingers under the handle. The soothing heat of the tea seeps through the mug and warms my palms.

So, which one will do the honors today?

Peering into the cupboard I consider the swollen shape of a Starbuck’s mug with a grassy green circle surrounding the trademarked siren. Or the chalky “I Love New York” mug that features Milton Glaser’s logo with the ruby-red heart instead of the word love and NY in place of New York. Or the Pantone 732C mug with the wrap-around color swatch as deep and dark as a strong black tea. Logos and other decoration are usually showcased on the two sides of the mug flanking the handle so they’re in full view of both right- and left-handed drinkers.

How about the octagonal mug with the sweet flower pattern that my son gave me as a Mother’s Day gift when he was a youngster. Or the forest-green-glazed ceramic mug with the outward curving lip, which was handcrafted by a potter in Philadelphia, and that my son and a one-time girlfriend brought home from college. I wasn’t keen on that relationship. One of the most difficult trials of parenting is when someone mistreats your child even when that child is an adult.

Then there’s that droll mug my sister Brenda gave me on my 40th birthday with the faded illustration and text that reads “Age isn’t so bad. Ugly is what you gotta watch out for.” Twenty-five years later that quip isn’t so funny. I should demote that one to the garage and repurpose it into a tool container.

I opt for the Coca-Cola-red mug with the white Swiss cross and recall the day I bought it two summers ago in Lucern. I had taken the train to Einsiedeln to visit the archive and library at the Benedictine monastery, and on the way back I got off the train at Lucern to do some sightseeing. I saw that souvenir mug in a tourist shop but I didn’t want to carry it around while I strolled the cobblestone streets and meandered in and out of historical landmarks. So, I decided to return later. Along the way I went into another gift shop that showcased the same mugs in their display window. I picked up a packaged sample and opened the box to be sure the mug was in good condition. From the top of the box I could see down into the mug. The word Switzerland was printed in red on the inside near the rim but the word was typeset in a serif typeface. In the mug I had seen earlier, the word Switzerland was typeset in sans-serif Helvetica. The mug is a souvenir of Switzerland, the homeland of Helvetica, so a serif typeface is just wrong. I retraced my steps, bought two mugs at the other shop, and arrived at the station just in time to catch the last train.

While its character may change, the form of a mug remains fairly constant—a simple cylindrical container with an open top, closed bottom, and side handle. The handle is the fulcrum, the pivotal point of balance between the hand and the container. It has to be strong, comfortable to hold, and provide enough space between one’s fingers and the hot wall of the cylinder to avoid getting burned. The lip of the mug must be smooth and slightly rounded as it meets the mouth. Yet success hinges on thermal insulation. Thick walls, like a bulky sweater, provide better insulation. But it’s the bottom of the mug that makes all the difference. A concave bottom or a raised rim around the bottom edge keeps the mug from touching the surface beneath and prevents hot liquids from cooling too quickly.

Ancient mugs were carved out of wood and bone or shaped from clay. Later bronze, silver, gold, pewter, and even lead were used but metals conduct heat and proved to be unsuitable for hot liquids. Then the Chinese invented porcelain, a strong ceramic material as white and translucent as the cowrie shell, and tough in spite of its delicacy. My octagonal mug with the sweet flower pattern that my son gave me as a Mother’s Day gift is porcelain.

And the Chinese discovered tea. At least legend has it that as far back as 2737 BCE Emperor Shen Nung recognized the potential when some leaves drifted into water that he was boiling. Really, would an emperor boil his own water?

The Chinese are also in the business of mugs. My Starbuck’s and “I Love New York” mugs are marked “Made in China,” as are many products in America. In January 2005, Sara Bongiorni, a business writer, made a New Year’s resolution not to buy anything from China for one year. In her book about the experience, A Year Without Made in China, she reveals the futility of such an endeavor. We live in a global community and rely on one another. We also have access now to consumer goods that we didn’t have in the past. I’m glad about that. Unilever, an international company co-headquartered in London, England, and Rotterdam, Netherlands produces my favorite tea, PG Tips. The tea itself, though, is imported as single estate teas from around the world and blended in the UK. I’m pretty sure some of those leaves come from China.

I pour a small amount of milk into my Swiss souvenir mug, add the piping hot tea, cover the teapot with the Victorian floral-patterned cozy topped off with a little lavender bow, stir, take a seat on a kitchen stool, spread the newspaper across the counter, lift the mug by its handle, and savor the morning.

Photos by Susan Merritt

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