Time for one thing: A cup of tea

The virtues of a cup of tea.

By Dawn MacKeen

Published July 29, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

My grandmother, Arshalous, came through Ellis Island during the Great Depression with two small children, a husband, no money and no idea where she was going. She left almost everything behind in Turkey except her traditions, including a special one that would sustain her through poverty and the hardships that lay ahead: a cup of tea at least once a day, a dose of tranquillity with a squeeze of lemon and some honey.

Arshalous was one of those people who didn't listen to anybody else. Every afternoon, her loud voice and the guttural pitches of her Armenian echoed through the family's cramped, one-bedroom apartment on 133rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, rhetorically asking, "Thirsty?" Then, without waiting for an answer, she filled the cast-iron pot with water and put it on the stove. When it was boiling rapidly, she threw flowers and dried leaves into the pot and let them steep for 10 minutes. The sweet smell of the herb, called "Oukhlemor" in Armenian, filled the apartment while she sliced lemon wedges and got down the jar of honey. She would then strain the tea into a cup, squeeze in a few drops of lemon juice and let the honey slide off a spoon and curl into the steaming flowered water. And then she would stir, slowly.

It was tea time. "Khume asee oktagare kezee," she would say. Drink this, it's good for you. "What is it called in English?" my mother would ask. Arshalous would throw back her head and mumble in Armenian. What difference did it make?

Years later, my mother would throw back her head when I asked, "Oukhlemor, what is it?" Though it is similar in smell and texture to chamomile, it isn't quite as sweet. The dried leaves of Oukhlemor are dull-green in color, and the tiny buds almost a yellowish ecru. The tea is toffee brown with a rosy undertone.

And it is good for you -- but more as a remedy for the spirit than the body, a sort of comfort in a cup, a liquid security blanket. A transcendental calmness, like a loved one stroking your head. A moment of smelling it and dousing your face in the steam always preludes any taste of it. Then slow sips. No gulps.

My grandmother would always wait for the tea to cool -- but just for a few minutes, not too long. You don't want it to burn your lips, but if it's too cool, it isn't soothing. The only way you can tell when it's ready is by holding it; if it just warms your hands, it's just right. And Oukhlemor always tastes better in the warmth of a light, whether you're sitting by the window, catching the last rays of the afternoon sun or by the evening light of a lamp.

In fact, you must sit down while having a cup of tea, my grandmother would say. You can't have it on the run, like coffee. Although I have heard that coffee actually carries less caffeine than many teas, it is still an on-the-go drink, a boost of energy made to drink while dashing across town. A cup of tea is to be savored, to be cherished over time. A cup of tea can last as long as you need it to.

It was during the Pritikin diet craze in the '80s that my mother finally unearthed the name of this mystery herb. She had read about a tea that was supposedly good for the nerves and hypertension and went to the store to buy it. Into a pot of boiling water she tossed it and as soon as she did, she knew. It was Oukhlemor or, in English, linden flower tea.

Whenever my mother and I are together, we find the time to sit down for a cup of tea. Usually, it is Oukhlemor, but other times it's whatever we can find. What I really savor about what Arshalous passed on to us is not the type of tea but the ritual of having it. I think she really believed that sitting down for just one moment during the day is the best remedy for almost anything.

Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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