In his “I’m going to pretend to be homeless and then write the last word on homelessness” book (Down and Out in Paris and London), George Orwell discusses the charitable insult of being obliged to choke back a lecture on religion to get churches’ free “tea-and-two-slices”.
I read this book in 1998, I think; it was during a graduate seminar devoted entirely to Orwell and I didn’t love it, for various reasons, including the fact that Orwell’s non-1984 and non-Animal Farm offerings are kind of awful. Also, I was very quiet in this class and the one time I had a really good idea about one of those horrid novels, the superstar of our MA year got me to tell him what I was thinking and said it was great. He then dropped it in class as his own idea, which was praised to heaven by the prof, while I was working up the courage to say it myself. It’s funny that of all the injustices that get heaped on students as a matter of course in grad school, that’s my only really active resentment. No, of course, I didn’t say anything at the time; talking, in general, was a trial for me then; how things have changed!
I would be happy to forget that Orwell class ever happened. But the bare thought of tea and two slices haunts me…because how bad would they have to be to not still be pretty much the best thing in the world? Tea and toast comprise my favourite meal, preferably early morning meal, even though they don’t actually really fill me up and hold about as much nutritional value as a smack in the mouf.
But you see, I’m from Nova Scotia, and at least half of my ancestors are also from Nova Scotia and that means tea and toast are not only our best contributions to the culinary world, but they’re also so deep in my blood they are likely mitochondrial.
You know what else is essentially mitochondrial for me? Reading. Put a good book and a delicious combination of orange pekoe and toast (topped with either peanut butter, jam and butter (vegan butter for me, thankee), or just butter), and I am not only entirely happy but also entirely myself. This combination of things launched me happily through my undergraduate and Master’s degrees.
In the many sleepless nights during my PhD, these three together, enjoyed in my cozy, gently lamp-lit nocturnal reading nook, not only helped me eventually to get some rest, but also provided what I’m now certain were the most satisfying parts of my most advanced degree. Yes, the best part of my PhD in English Renaissance literature likely involved my sitting cross-legged in an ancient Ikea chair reading various classics of Japanese literature while eating delicious toast and tea (decaf for the insomnia, of course).
Anthony Trollope describes it best, really. In The Warden, he refers to a minor but thoroughly unlikable character (ruthless and subtle media rattlesnake Tom Towers) “inhaling ambrosia and sipping nectar in the shape of toast and tea” (p. 184). I don’t know if this detail is meant, somehow, to further reveal the depth and reach of Towers’s moral corruption; if it does, I can’t comprehend it. Tea and toast, to me, bespeak a pleasing combination, or healthy alternation between, repose and industry. That they happen also to fuel evil super-villains is not their fault; it’s simply that their power is universally and democratically available to all. Now that grad school is far behind me, tea and toast + book remains my favourite manifestation of everyday comfort and enjoyment.
The PhD was a rough time; so rough it challenged, although didn’t ruin, the calming power of tea and toast in my life. But it wasn’t just the degree and the isolation and workaholic tendencies that it involved; it’s really that tea was, for a long and sad time, almost entirely replaced by coffee. Coffee and toast aren’t made for one another in quite the same way tea and toast are; and while a little bit of stimulant (tea) is civilized and pleasing and refreshing, a lot (coffee) tends to disrupt the quiet and still concentration needed for the leisurely read. Coffee is all about getting down to business (as the prolific, coffee-addicted Honore de Balzac knew and built his personal literary edifice upon); tea is about putting the business aside for just a little while and checking out of the noise.
Within the last year, my dear friend the Catastrophizer introduced me to a fancy loose leaf tea place in east-end Toronto; I’ve spent a great deal of cash on their lovely offerings. Very recently though, I’ve gotten back to my east coast, no money roots and I have invested in a giant box of Orange Pekoe tea which put me out of pocket by approximately $5.
Unsweetened soy milk in black tea, pumpernickel bread with caraway seeds topped with peanut butter—yes, really, it’s shockingly delicious—with Dickens’s Sketches by Boz or Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands in hand have together brought me so much happiness recently that they approach a sort of Platonic ideal of destitute but satisfied leisure. (I mean “destitute” in the Victorian middle class way, i.e., my silk dresses are getting rusty but I certainly have enough to eat, and I still get invited to parties.)
Now, time for a cuppa…