Brewing a Few Aphorisms

20140608-084108-31268293.jpgMug drinkers like most Americans, we’ve taken to drinking tea out of teacups lately.  Certain old teacups surfaced in the household after years of being shunted around in well-packed boxes from one branch of the family to another.  With these daintily molded porcelain shells unpacked and in hand, we don’t necessarily drink less in the long run– the teapot is right in front of us and we greedily pour out more, especially of that potent loose-leaf black tea– but a scenario results that is different from the one in which a preoccupied family member fills up a big mug in the kitchen and wanders off.

Proper teacups have a matching saucer to place  underneath to catch the drips; my fourteen-year old, who wouldn’t use actual glass tumblers until she was ten for fear of dropping them, appreciates this.  I appreciate it because in haste for my morning sip, I often daub my shirt front with tell-tale brown–the saucer makes you more aware, and safer.  It takes two hands to handle a cup and saucer, and frankly, we need that kind of forced focus.

In Bengali and Hindi (and Persian, where we got the word), the word for cup is peyala/pyala, which neatly segues with the word’s pre-European meaning of a shallow bowl from which to drink wine.   In a poetic moment with your local artsy teenager, you could slurp the cooled slops from the saucer below (pirich in Bangla, from Portuguese) and declare, “Oh, good, I can have every last drop!” –acting slightly intoxicated with the very fact of living.  The hidden didactic then points to the utter irrelevance of alcohol in such a moment.

The humble tea-saucer suggests all kinds of offerings: hospitable, worshipful, charitable and amorous; from my childhood in West Bengal, I have an indelible image of one person holding a saucer to someone else’s lip so they can drink–that someone else being either too young, too ill, or otherwise too feeble to help themselves to fluids.  When you’re no longer inured to its use, a teacup seems to be about delicacy, but not the pretentiously frail sort of BBC costume -drama cliche.  In real life, drinking out of little cups does make you contemplate the little bit of the earth’s largesse allowed you at that minute.  Drinking from tea cups has come to mean pausing for a little while to relax or socialize, and the small measure of time is as significant as the small amount of fluid.  It takes you well away from the mug idea.

Now, what is the mug idea?  Mugs are useful. Mugs belong in workshops and working offices, so you don’t have to run back and forth to the kitchen or the corner hob to get more.   Mugs mean going on with work, or attending to each other or oneself with such intensity that social niceties such as tipping a teapot with a faintly rattling lid would be a noxious interruption.  I’m chatting with you in my floppiest sweater and neither one of us wants to get up to pour more.  Or, we’re thirsty and cold and need to chug a large amount of hot stuff before we get ill.   “Hold on, I’ll get you another mug of x”–this means your friend’s situation is truly a crisis, and might result in someone leaving school or changing jobs.  The mug idea seems to be catching on in other countries–why? Is the dual ideal of relaxed living and grunting hard work of (for instance) finishing those actuarial tables, spreading?  The little teacup seems to require more alacrity than the absent-minded mug, and its idea of comfort is a little more ceremonial and admonitory.  Do I go too far in thinking that tea in teacups has to do with solvable problems?  The tea in “tea and sympathy” implies that the problem seems large only to one of the party, and after dabbing his or her eye and sighing a bit, that party will resolve to do the sensible thing by the last sip.

So having built my edifice of sand on the theory of small teacups versus hefty mugs, I have to admit that lately I have spied Indians, West Indians,  and Brits on film drinking from LARGE teacups.  This is upsetting my whole scheme of tea moments I had neatly arranged in my mind like baby, mamma, and papa bears.  Yes, a larger teacup  (but  a teacup nevertheless, ornamented with those rapturous roses or blue and gold edging lines) could mean a longer moment to sip, to gaze, to chat quietly.  You’d have to sit down to drink a LARGE cup, and you’d be lolling restfully like the scrubbed-clean shepherds drawn on them.  A large teacup is honest refreshment after work, like a pint, but also its opposite.  If *I* grabbed a large teacup in the kitchen, it would still mean that I was shuffling off to some corner to read or scribble or grade papers or sigh as I gazed out the window.  It wouldn’t mean sitting with anyone, or pausing.  It would mean having to go on, feebly or doggedly.  It would still require more consciousness than the mug though–the mug is a dog that follows you and waits, and the large teacup is a cat that sits on the page you want to write on.

Coconut Oil Thermometer

The original name of this blog, Waterchili, came from the frozen green chilis we keep on ice to add to our cooking.  To keep with the transported-tropical-produce theme, let me note how a jar of coconut oil in our kitchen serves as a sharply accurate marker for the seasons.  I am surprised that the appropriate technology people haven’t made an actual oil thermometer–but perhaps they don’t need to.  People who keep jars or bottles or cans of coconut oil in their house as a regular thing would notice on their own how attuned it is to the temperature.

Even up here in the North of the Northern USA, our household uses coconut oil as a hair and head conditioner (though some people cook with it too) the way that traditional South Asians do.  You get it into a liquid state and rub it through your scalp and thirsty remnants of a mane before you bathe.  Shampoo and hot water wash out the excess, leaving your hair soft and your scalp more soothed than it might be otherwise.  Never mind that for a while my provocatively original 13 year old was applying it to her dripping locks AFTER taking a shower–one of the several notable instances of members of my extended family applying printed advice in unprecedented and impractical ways.  For South Asians, hair oil also has all kinds of mental health connotations, and is supposed to help preserve your hair as you age.  Coconut oil is mixed into fancier hair condiments in South Asia–ones with fragrance and color and poetic names–which will register the cooling of the season with their own uncooperative partial solidification, but these patent mixtures do not (perhaps deliberately) have the spot-on temperature honesty of pure coconut oil. Around here, we need to melt out the little bit we use each time; that is why we keep it in the kitchen.  Besides, my nervous sandwich-generation imagination can too easily see the glass jar slipping from young or elderly hands and smashing to bits on the hard tile floor of the bathroom; shards of glass lined with white fat just wouldn’t have the charm of the broken coconut fragments, white fruit lining the hairy and hard brown shell pieces, that were childhood treats on our West Bengal veranda.

This little story of the coconut oil thermometer really began one morning in June,  when we noticed a jar of straw-yellow liquid on the kitchen counter.  Around our devil’s workshop of a house, I keep everything from colored glass bangles to dried chrysanthemum flowers in old spaghetti sauce jars.  These jars are so handy, in their wide-mouthed, measured-capacity ways.  Nevertheless, I, who can sniff the difference between two year old ground cumin and coriander–when to most other people both resemble aged sawdust– jumped in slight alarm at the pale translucency in the clean jar and asked my husband What’s that?  Leftover wine? Kerosene? Less pleasant substances had also streaked through my mind just then.  He didn’t know either, but after our tea and coffee we finally realized that the intractable white solid that we occasionally dug at, and had to microwave or heat in a saucepan to thaw during most of the year, had liquefied completely overnight due to the short and furious Maine summer finally arriving at our typically un-air-conditioned house.

All summer my daughter (the hair-aficionado, or -nada) and I poured spoonfuls on our head directly from the jar, reveling in the ease of application after the jabbing and scraping that just about made us give up the stuff in colder months.  Friends as we are with the people who cut our hair, we could only get them to nod sympathetically, as if at two permanently confused and inarticulate people, when we described our own hot-oil treatment to them while they worked on our respectively salt-and-pepper and richly auburn-brown heads.

Suddenly, two days ago, the first cool breeze of September blew back to front through our cluttered house, and the next morning part of the coconut oil was white again.  I said, We could use this as a thermometer.  Panting in the car on the way home from work in late afternoon Portland traffic, I could not imagine my kitchen as a cool place, but I guess it had been all day:  this afternoon even more of it was white and solid, leaving just a sneaky smile of liquid yellowish oil in the middle layer.  Not just a thermometer–this jar could serve as a calendar too!  I called my spouse and he said It’s supposed to go up into the 80’s again; let’s see what it’s going to do.

If the stuff melts, which it might not for a brief quirk of weather, I’ll get my paint-splattered shorts out again (the pair that got left on the deck railing for a week one summer and was thus three shades lighter on the outside than inside) and go for a walk around the neighborhood in my flip flops, denying the inevitable even as my bag of schoolwork to grade gets heavier by the day.  The coconut fat did partially become oil again, but only on one side of the jar, as if to keep its slippery feet firmly planted in seasonal reality.

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I am finally posting this on an early October day when sweaters have begun to come out of their shady summer hiding places and it is out of the question for even the teenager to go out in flip flops.  In fact, gathering cold-season supplies from various malls this weekend, we noticed a bizarre wall hanging on sale:  painted tin flip flops nailed to a rectangular panel, an object that I’m willing to bet no full-time tropical person would actually decorate their wall with. Meanwhile, our coconut oil pet is sitting tight in its jar, creamy white and stubborn.  The heat coming on in the house might make it manageable for cosmetological purposes, but liquid oil? It won’t be that until the awe-inspiring movements of the solar system bring us around to June again.

Fantasy Road Food

My blogging name is Waterchili because I am a Bengali (much buffeted by American and other cultures since childhood) living in a cold North Atlantic state.  Yes, I know chili peppers don’t grow underwater.  Maybe I was thinking about the frozen green chilis I use in my cooking, and the contradictory richness that life in Northern New England brings to me.  It’s not really that I am a frozen Bengali gazing at life through a wall of ice, though you’re welcome to contemplate that fetching image; rather, I have green chilis from my mother’s southern garden in my freezer and they do gaze out at the world through a (thin) wall of ice.

I go on a long commute daily, using country and urban-village roads and glove compartment baby carrots and swuft water-bottle notwithstanding, I often find myself hankering desperately for something to eat or drink. Given my doctor’s counter-dysglycemic guidelines and my own earthy preferences, none of my legitimate wishes can be fulfilled in my actual roadside landscape, so I decided to fantasize about an ideal journey, studded with impossible snacks. (The one time I stopped for an actual apple dumpling, an elderly man in loose pants got out of his talking pickup truck–imagine a robotic female voice warning from the dash, “Proximity to body of water, proximity to body of water,” and the driver proudly claiming “she” even warned him of fire hydrants, other vehicles and such–to stop me.   When the old man caught sight of me eating in the parking lot under the pleasant autumn sun, trying to catch the crumbs before they hit the ground, he declared helpfully, “Them things aren’t good for you.”  Third chomp into my whole [as in hog]-baked-apple-and flaky-pastry perversion, standing two narrow asphalt lanes across from the orchard itself still full of fat and dark red apples on the hoof, I mean branch, I readily answered, “I won’t do it again, I promise.”)

What I really want is someone who sells raw sprouted chick peas with a squeeze of lime juice, served in a recyclable paper cone, at that bend in the road.  On wet afternoons, I’d love to stop for a bowl of hot sambar with soft cubes of vegetables floating in it—the dosa or idli one would expect with this would be off limits.  I’d cheerfully aver “I’m all set” before the server could hand me anything starchy.  What about a stall for gingery spiced milk, to assuage the parched throat of an easily taxed driver?  And is it only I who think opportunities for roasted peanut vendors are going begging at the street corner that intervenes between the high school and the fire station?  And does no one else want little fried fish with hot sauce?  The variety store (in Maine this seems to mean a convenience store that also sells sandwiches and pizza) could serve batter-fried okra, but doesn’t.  At least the lady was nice about breaking my $20 when I bought my kid a bag of chips.