; Cwyn's Death By Tea: The Death Book of '80s Tea ;

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Death Book of '80s Tea

Really Old Tea
Tea Classico's 1980s Ying Ming Hao takes me back to my younger days exploring herbal teas and remedies. While my mother was Jewish, my father was a Catholic priest who spent his entire youth in the seminary. I followed suit with a similar education and so off I went to the convent. Spent my 1980s as a nun, and the Order invested a great deal into me, for which I'm eternally grateful and unable to fully repay. My thorough training at their hands started out with correcting my appalling lack of cooking skills.

Back in the 1980s, the nuns began to rethink their traditional German style farm diet when all too many aging nuns developed heart disease, diabetes and cancer. They followed the example of Thomas Merton, probably the most famous Cistercian monk ever, who traveled to Asia in the 1960s to spend time in a Zen Buddhist monastery, until his instant death in 1968 by pulling a metal electric fan chain while getting out of a Buddhist bathtub. Thomas Merton wrote and spoke extensively on meditation and other lifestyle practices he learned from monks in Asia in the short time he had before taking that fatal shower. In his opinion, eastern and western monasticism had much in common in terms of development, we all get the same results with different methods. But eastern monastics pay far more attention to their physical bodies in comparison to their western counterparts. Consequently, monastics of all types in the west began to examine the role of diet in the development of the spiritual life, how lighter diets support meditation practices, and heavier diets contribute to sluggishness and snoring in the choir.
Thomas Merton, OCSO, photo at pbs.org
My own convent had got to the point in the 1980s of having two food lines in the refectory. One was the regular German diet of roasted meat, starches and cooked vegetable, and the other was the "diabetic" diet, usually consisting of fish and a  "better" vegetable like steamed broccoli as opposed to canned green beans. When I visited last year, the refectory had finally changed the "diabetic" food line to "vegetarian." However, in the 1980s the nuns sent me to vegetarian cooking classes and to study at a meditation center with a Sufi master. Sufi is the mystical order of Islam, and you've probably read Rumi whether you know it or not. I continued to study with the Sufi master even after I left the convent for a total of ten years.

At the meditation center and the convent, I got a thorough grounding in herbal medicines, teas and chai. I gathered local herbs and grew familiar with everything from tonics to purgatives and even abortifacients. Read a lot of vintage herb books I can't even find anymore. I wish I could get the herbal chai teas we had back then. These were the original Yogi teas. The Yogi website history refers to the teas they provided to meditation centers in the 1960s-1980s, but unfortunately they don't show the photos nor seem to sell them anymore. Like puerh recipes, these teas had recipe numbers, such as 8 herb, 16 herb and 22 herb. The 8 and 16 herb chai's weren't too bad, they consisted of lots of sweet roots, barks and seeds like cinnamon, pepper, fennel and so on. The 22 herb was a bit obscene, too many mixed flavors as I recall.

Still I miss those teas. I look back Nostalgically to the days of scraping the inner bark off trees, scouting out wintergreen beneath the snow, working in the herb shop at the meditation center which was a repurposed old wooden post office. Rather my Brother Cadfael era, lived well before that show appeared on public television. The whole thing finally culminated for me at a high point of making Egyptian kyphi incense, in the full flower of my virgin maidenhood, a meditation on a night with a particular phase of the moon. While I no longer have any of the herbs or teas from back then, I still have a big jar of that incense which contains things like wine, honey, raisins, frankincense, myrrh and benzoin and must be burned on charcoal. Can't get myself to open this last jar nor throw it out. 80s teas might be in the same boat as this 80s incense, a curiosity but nothing worth pursuing.

My Virgin Incense, and other Relics
As far as I'm concerned, herbal "tisanes," as they are now called, are nostalgic and nothing more. My opinion on tisanes, biochemistry labs aside, is that they are virtually useless in treating any real disease. You won't get healthier, prevent cancer, have better babies nor cure any condition whatsoever with herbs. Probably the best use for herbs is to get stoned. For me, herbs are as antiquated as Death Books. 
Virgin Incense jar. 
Preparing for Death used to be a real business for Nuns, and for everyone in general. If herbs worked all that well, then people might have lived longer in the old days before modern medicine. As it was, children were far more likely to die before the age of 8. The lack of painkillers is a good reason to meditate on death ahead of time. People needed to prepare psychologically for the  "agonies" of death in a way we don't need to anymore. You could potentially ruin a whole life of good deeds and holy intentions by screaming obscenities at God in the pains of cancer, and end up in hellfire because the Lord will not forgive you. To avoid this, Death Books got you to think about your feet turning blue in advance so you can hopefully keep your wits about you as your entrails rot. "A good death and a perfect end, amen."

Luckily we don't need Death Books anymore, because we largely dodge the majority of people killers with antibiotics and other modern medicines. Herbs and puerh teas will not cure any condition nor provide much, if any, health benefit aside from what your body is already in a condition to do. You can argue this with me if you like, but I have pushed this limit. In my 30s I developed a tendency to kidney infections, a tendency inherited from my female relatives and I was late to that party, since my mother and sister had been dealing with kidney infections from childhood. With my background in herbs and meditation, I tried to power it out. The result was increasingly stubborn gram-negative bacteria that grew to resist one antibiotic after another, the ones I didn't develop allergies to, until I was down to ciprofloxacin, the end of the line before needing the hospital and a whole IV cocktail for every episode. A series of lifestyle changes, including slowing down, avoiding alcohol, harsh weather, bad sex, and drinking cranberry extract and a pot of green tea a day were all hopeful prevention measures. But truth is this: without antibiotics  I'd be dead. My own mother tried to get help from Chinese herbs this past year to treat diabetes and congestive heart failure and she is now dead.

So, don't try to power out health conditions using green tea nor any other herb. Get thee to a Real Doctor. I do believe green tea has helped as a PART of my regimen by keeping fluids going and avoiding worse stuff. I haven't had an infection for 8 years and the last was only 1 in 10 years. Still, drinking tea is now a lot more fun now than 17 years ago when I started putting green tea bags into a coffee maker basket. Nevertheless, I'm going to leave my herbs in the past where they belong and enjoy them as a memory while drinking a 1980s tea today, courtesy of a real herbal innovation called Internet Tea Shopping.

This assumes that Tea Classico's Ying Ming Hao is really 1980s. Who came up with this date? Going in I'm not going to assume that the purported age of this tea is going to give me an experience any better than da fine shit of White2Tea's 2014 Manzhuan, a real wife beater of a tea outside of a smoky Menghai tuo. But I'm willing to risk $25 and what's left of my kidneys to Tea Classico to find out.
17 gram chunk, before the jack hammer
5 grams in a 70 ml Yixing pot circa 1980s from Origin Tea. As of this writing, Tony has 3 of these teapots left. If you don't have an older Yixing, get over there and buy one for under $100. He has a 15% off coupon in place on the home page. Normally I'd use a gaiwan but I only have 20 grams of this tea in total and want to enjoy the experience.

Two rinses and the wet Hong Kong storage smell emerges. I aired the tea for two weeks and perhaps it should go longer. Always in a hurry to taste my teas. The color of the soup is red and brown for the first three steeps, mellowing to a dark brown from the fourth steep onward.
Second steep
Incredible mineral-ly flavor, and lively on the tongue and lips. No doubt Tony's  teapot is contributing to the mineral quality, which lingers long afterward. Going past the third steep, the storage mellows into a wet soil flavor and my mouth-feel is even more full of minerals. Ah, this wet soil of memory, if we'd had this tea no doubt the nuns could have thrown away the death books sooner than they did. To actually smell and taste six feet under, rather than just thinking about it. How much more rich a sensory experience puerh tea is! The soil we return to, the musty old post office herb shop, a green aged back to brown. I'll take my cup of the present day, and the wet dirt future and the minerals of past ideals when hope existed in cutting fresh green northern spring nettles mixed with a few tears and it's all good, all good. The cup and what's left on the tongue.

Tea Classico's early 1980s Ying Ming Hao comes in a large 400g beeng. I highly recommend it and of course I want more. But the cost? $325 and selling my Virgin Incense for a song.

Requiescat in Pace
Feast of Rose of Viterbo


  1. loved reading about your experiences as a nun.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, this is not an easy topic to write about.

  2. I just came by to say I love your blog and that I hope you post more soon!

    My Feedly gets lonely without you :)

  3. Once a week for sure, and hopefully more once the colder weather arrives! Cheers!