I’m only on page 227 out of 503 (before the sources and bibliography) in Erik Larson’s book “The Splendid and the Vile: a Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz” (New York: Crown, part of Penguin Random House, 2020). But even apart from the two times when I’ve laughed out loud already, I’ve found a chapter that I’ll remember throughout the book: Chapter 36, Teatime.
I read it with my late father’s voice in my mind’s ear. Especially in the last few years of his life, he told me often that the most comforting sentence in the English language is “I’ll put the kettle on.” With today’s cooling breezes reminding me that I’d like to warm up, it’s good weather again for hot tea, so I’ll be putting my kettle on more often after a summer of putting tea bags and water in the fridge to make “sun” tea.
A mention of the institution of tea rationing and the arguments over it sent me to my cabinet on Friday night. Cabinet secretary Frederick Lindemann, known as “Prof,” wrote to Winston Churchill in August 1940 opposing the limit of the tea ration to two ounces a week.
I have just tested a tin box of loose tea in my cabinet, which held four ounces of loose tea when I opened it. If I decide to put tea bags into it when I finish using the loose tea, I will have trouble fitting more than 21 bags into the four-ounce box. If I were drinking tea all seven days of the week, that’s one tea bag per meal, and if I followed the British system of having breakfast, lunch, tea-as-meal (around 4 p.m.) and a light, late supper, I’d need to re-use at least one bag. That’s with a four-ounce supply. The ration in 1940 Britain was half of that.
Lindemann’s effort didn’t succeed, and tea was rationed to two ounces a week. As Larson puts it, “The tea ration, eventually raised to three ounces a week, would remain in effect until 1952. In the meantime, people dried their used tea leaves so they could steep them again.”
Larson describes Lindemann’s effort to get a larger tea ration enforced as “a caring for the common man’s experience of the war” and adds that “The one universal balm for the trauma of the war was tea. It was the thing that helped people cope.” (I see the point. I think I first heard Dad describe “the most comforting sentence in the language” after my mother’s death, when making tea together and drinking it were soothing rituals.)
“Tea underpinned morale,” Larson wrote — not exactly news to me. I can drink coffee, but I don’t make a habit of it, and when I do get into a coffee habit, it can be painful to break. (I like to keep my body guessing about just how much caffeine is coming.)
For me at least, tea is easier to use in different concentrations and varieties. I still like it with milk at times, although I don’t drink the “milk with a suntan” that my college roommate named my tea when I first took up drinking it. From what I’ve read about the soporific effects of warm milk, I think milk adds to the comforting effect of tea.
So I’ll be putting the kettle on as I continue with “The Splendid and the Vile,” whether it’s to remember family members, favorite places, or terrible events — it’s still a war story — or to get over style quibbles. (Fellow purists, look out: Larson refers to the prime minister’s residence as “10 Downing” much more than the U.K. style of “No. 10” or “Downing Street.”)
I think the book’s going to wind up on my list of Sustaining Books. If I had a list of Sustaining Drinks, tea would be high on it.
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.