Mug 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.