In college, I worked at the campus newspaper and moonlighted down the hall at the radio station, KPNI. It was there I learned the value of not popping my P’s or T’s and developed an appreciation for techno music from the station manager. My show lasted for an hour during which I would read PSA’s as breaks and attempted to ad-lib throughout the hour. I worked on fading in songs and how to select them by length and sonic resonance with the preceding song. When I look back on that time, it feels almost mythical. Our station team consisted of a spirited crew. We were a band of misfits and I loved every minute of my time in the studio—even the mandatory rotation shows each of us got assigned, playing songs from a limited selection of CDs. In the studio, I set aside my shyness of being in front of crowds, channeling my energy into the music and weaving songs together to tell a larger story. I considered the small space private and the microphone as a rhetorical question issued into the silence.
When Steeped began its locomotive journey out of me, into the kitchen, and onto the page, I knew that I wanted not just to include my story of how I got steeped, but those of friends and tastemakers in the tea world. A cup of oolong tea offered along with an engagement ring at a jewelry shop prompted my former bosses to completely shift direction from their current careers into one deeply steeped in tea. The tea world is full of people whose passion for the leaf transforms their lives. Those stories fascinate me and need to be told. They are the focus behind my new podcast.
You heard that right: I have been working behind the scenes to bring all the pieces together to create a podcast for tea lovers. Expect episodes highlighting conversations over tea with some of the people behind specialty tea companies who are informing and shaping the direction of tea in the U.S.
Living in the Bay area, there is a proliferation of specialty tea companies headquartered within close proximity of each other. Tell me in the comments if there is a tea company you would like to see featured. The first Tea with Tastemakers podcast episode is up!
Silk Road Teas offers exquisite rare artisan teas and has quite a storied past. Based in San Rafael, their focus on quality and reputation in the industry make Silk Road a sought after purveyor of teas. I sat down with president, Ned Heagerty to hear how he got steeped. He and his wife Catherine source and procure stunning teas that are starting to become more available in specialty markets as well as online. Tune in and join us for tea by clicking below to listen.
When I was a kid, my mom occasionally toted me to blind taste tests where we would be paid for our opinions. I remember trying different unmarked hot dogs as a child and giving my opinion on which one tasted best. Even as a child, I was never short on opinions, though I was short. One evening the power in the building extinguished and I could hear a woman let out a blood-curdling cry of, my baby! When the lights went back on, the person behind the scream emerged as a sheepish mother and her seven-year old son red of embarrassment. Years later, my mom and I tell that story of sampling hot dogs punctuated with a blackout and bone-chilling scream and break out into laughter. While working at the tea company, I attended a professional tasting training where they had brought in an expert to teach us the roles of the different parts of our palates and how to better describe what we taste.
All of my previous tasting experiences served me well on a Tuesday morning in a wooden folding seat, a tray of capped plastic ramekins on my lap. In the brightly lit room, Jack Bishop began giving us instructions on how we would conduct the audience portion of the blind taste test before Chris Kimball emerged onto the set. The setting was inside the white house in Rupert, Vermont where Cook’s Country by America’s Test Kitchen is filmed. After two weeks of filming, this Tuesday was the final day of what I imagine must have been something like a professional boot camp. A work trip took me to the beautiful backdrop of back roads where the leaves were just beginning to crisp up with color, and into that studio audience folding chair. I had been to America’s Test Kitchen before and happily revisited it during my brief stint in Brookline before heading north.
On this day our task was simple: three kinds of corn chips – three kinds of salted butter – three kinds of Creole seasoning. A professional tasting panel had already tasted the samples waiting before us and our opinions would provide an extra set of data along with Chris Kimball’s blind taste test of the same samples, from which to determine the recommended brand. An assistant passed out our tasting sheets where we would mark our answers and rate taste, color, and texture. I eyed the corn chips like it might have been a noon-day showdown. The colors all differed and so white corn took on yellow corn took on blue. It was no contest really. Even without salsa, only one chip emerged as the victor with a rippled bubbly exterior, solid crunch, and corny flavor. On to the butter, this round definitely perplexed us more. Who eats butter out of hand? And yet some spread it on saltines and I tried to dip my knife into it for a more pure unadulterated tasting. This time two butters competed almost head-to-head, but one came out the winner with its creamy consistency, slight salt, and a sweetness that had almost floral notes in it. I’m pretty sure a few of us were imagining dabbing a pat of that butter on warm sourdough bread. Last up, the Creole seasoning ended up polarizing our group. And, Bishop pointed out that it might make sense depending on where people were coming from. I immediately determined my winner after a quick heat developed in my mouth from the seasoning sprinkled on white rice. If I closed my eyes, I could envision homemade gumbo or etoufee with this necessary ingredient. Results were tallied.
One of the cameramen came out and moved us in our row so the view from the camera was just right. Out came Chris Kimball onto the set as the director yelled, action! Bishop and Kimball began their repartee as Kimball tackled the corn chip first, tasting all three options and agreeing with the audience, as he did with the butter, and Creole seasoning. Watching the two of them naturally gab in front of the camera (all told, I think there were five in the room), I’m reminded of how much I admire anyone willing to be on television. Kimball let his comments roll without reserve as he crunched one chip, then another, then back to the first batch. You can tell he’s been doing this for a while—he worked the camera (and crowd, let it be known) fluidly and with panache.
Being on camera isn’t something I aspire to do. Years ago, after a tradeshow elicited an opportunity for the tea company, I flew out to New York to tape a handful of videos on tea for a popular website. I had written the scripts—all verbiage and content I regularly shared at food festivals with visitors to our booth. I felt comfortable and confident with what I had written and practiced a few times in an empty conference room at the office, in front of a colleague, as well as in front of a mirror. I arrived the night before the taping so my body could acclimate to the time change and I could rest. My nails had been freshly lacquered. I sported a new choppy hairdo. My closet had been reduced to one acceptable dress. Manhattan on mute—muffled taxi cabs and street sounds kept me grounded.
Nothing could prepare me for what awaited. The camera trained on your face is a humbling prospect. It gives nothing to you—there are no eyes sparked with life that lift and smile, no eyebrows to crest up with surprise or furrow with skepticism. Instead you focus on a gaping glass eye that is all-seeing and unforgiving. I can’t tell you how many times I flubbed my words on that first video—words that I had written and essentially had to abandon in favor of keeping a steady rhythm and not pausing awkwardly searching for my next phrases. The director and content producer for the website were stellar—they kept me cool every time I grew flustered. By the end of the day, and after five videos, we had found our pace, and I had rediscovered my sense of humor. After that day of harrowing work, I felt no fear in front of the camera where I could ad-lib. Still, watching how Kimball and Bishop could nail their bits in one take or at most two—it was fascinating to watch how they would edit their remarks from one take to the next. I left the Cook’s Country house that day wiser for the corn chip, salted butter, and Creole seasoning, but wiser too from seeing people in their element getting their work done with grace.
It’s a funny thing how acronyms come to life. In the world that twitter created with its 140 character count, acronyms bloom into meadows of meaning. LOL. BRB. YOLO. FOMO. I drove through Yolo County recently and snickered wondering if the people who inhabit those towns happen to be more feckless about doing whatever challenging! Exciting! Need to do it! event– you only live once. When my good buddy Irvin taught me about the fear of missing out, it is as if my tongue had been loosed from its desperate searching for a term to embody that feeling that sometimes arises from reading too many social media updates. Recently, I stumbled upon a new-to-me acronym that I want to breathe hot fire into that it may fan into a full-on five alarm movement of possibility. JOMO.
An article printed in Ad Weekly asserts that busyness equals success—at least in other people’s perceptions. Think about it. The person who stays later than everyone else at the office- the person who never can accept an invitation because their calendar is crammed with commitments—do they seem like their lives are more full? I have been both of these people at different times of my life. That same article suggested that we actually are not as busy as we purport to be on social media. And yet, I’m here to tell you that we prioritize what we value. As a resident’s assistant in college, I gathered in a meet-and-greet with my residents in the lounge. Among different orders of business, I told them that I would try to be there for them when I could—if they came to me and the timing didn’t work, we would find another time. I would prioritize making sure their needs were heard and they felt cared for. I’ve tried to pull that idea with me into adulthood.
While working on Steeped, I was persona non grata for months. I had no idea how the book would eat my breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea times too. In the beginning, I attempted to make dates with friends, only to find that I flaked out later. That is not my personality type and I felt wretched about letting friends down. So, I took a break from making any appointments, dates or anything that looked like a plan. Eventually, I worked my way out of my hermitage of culinary solitude. That time period truly was the busiest I’ve ever been for good reason. One great take-away: while I couldn’t give friends in-person time, what they really wanted to know is that they mattered and that I still cared. So, I would call and talk with them for a few minutes, trying to steer the conversation so they could open up and share their lives with me. I didn’t have much to give, but found a way to make much of what I could offer. As a child, my mom once told me she never wanted to hear me use the word bored, so I instead supplanted it with busy. I never would have thought of myself as someone who glorifies being busy, but if I look at my track record, it’s not pretty. I worked three jobs in graduate school so I could earn two degrees at the same time. While working the next job, I took on another master’s degree. Instead of thinking that I am reveling in the idea of being busy, I consider this tact to be engrafted into me from a workaholic father. We share that gene of getting it done and thriving on the energy.
This past weekend, I was pulled in three directions: a food blogging conference – a natural food tradeshow – a poetry festival. All three of them had merit. I have attended on numerous occasions two of the events and I guess you could say I opted to take the Robert Frost approach to decision-making and chose the road less traveled. As I spied tweets and instagram posts from the other two events over the course of the weekend, I began embracing JOMO—the joy of missing out. Whether I had elected to attend one event over the other two, I would inevitably miss out…on being present in what circumstance I had chosen. Isn’t that the kicker? There wasn’t a bad answer to the choose your own adventure question. But somehow, even after we have made our decisions about how to spend our time, we can pine after the other options, the what-could-have-been’s instead of being grateful for where we are and firmly rooted in the present. And I would posit that kind of behavior is to our detriment. Scaling the backroads of New Hampshire and Vermont meant spotty wifi signals and sparse social media engagement. This freed me up to be present for whatever might present itself: the roadside farmstand serving apple cider slushies, the ice creamery dive on the side of the road in Brattleboro with 25 flavors that included Vermont maple walnut and Mayan chocolate.
We can’t be everywhere at once. In fact, sometimes life does not permit us to participate in something fun or desired, but instead forces our hand to play difficult cards we have been dealt. Can there be joy in that circumstance too? I would venture to say yes. The small moments make life magical—not just the over-the-top experiences. In an age where we are encouraged to stay plugged in, posting onto five or more social platforms throughout the day, and soaking up other people’s social activities, there is indeed great joy to be had in missing out. As a facebook friend commented earlier today, I took over 5 months off from Facebook. Guess what… life goes on, pretty well, I might add without it. And her reason for coming back to proceed with her social media presence is telling too, but I’m back for the convenience of organizing climbing trips and connecting with folks. So as we rethink the glorification of busyness, perhaps we might find joy in stillness and intention, of seeing where the road we’ve chosen might lead us.
Writing sometimes resembles wrestling a beast to the ground where the writer’s persistence on the page is rewarded. Rest assured, no animals were hurt in the statement above. Departures in writing can come about innocuously and perhaps some might say are causes of distraction, but I tend to abide by the idea of inhabiting Alice chasing the white rabbit on the page. The image of wrestling a beast came to me vividly today as I sat down to right about one thing even as the strains of the song in my headphones shuttled me somewhere else entirely. Before I could proceed with the writing at hand, I needed to grapple with that interloper head-on, knowing if I let it fight underneath my grasp, I might be able to access something real and true. Here’s where it took me:
In May, I had been refreshing my phone app’s weather program as if willing the weather to simmer down. I was traveling around Texas on book tour and so were the showers. I’m not fond of driving in Bay area rain where showers have garnered headlines long before the rain dried up. When I used to commute to San Rafael from San Francisco on a rainy day, the sky would turn the same color as the glistening road, blurring boundaries of street and sky. I had grown up in Texas where rain means business and takes on the adage that everything really is bigger in Texas. Growing up in that kind of place, you develop a healthy respect for weather systems. Tornadoes, flash flood thunderstorms, heat that bakes the back of anything in its wake appears regularly in the lone star state.
On one leg of my journey in the spring, I stayed at my mom’s house. She watched the weather channel with the frequency of conferring with it as one would with an oracle. The weatherman’s drone became the soundtrack of our days. That healthy respect transformed into an edginess as the darkening skies unfurled overhead. I have grown too accustomed to 24/7 sun that keeps the streets dry.
As one does in situations that test our mettle, I decided to try and make light of the typhoon of uncertainty growing within. I posted a photo of my driving route through the Texas and Louisiana legs of my book tour where not one but eight lightning bolts lit up the route I was supposed to take. I joked about being in a modern day rendition of the Odyssey and secretly hoped I didn’t spy any sirens on the roadside. An event in Dallas with overcast skies ended up blowing over. Another event in Dallas brought rain after the event had finished. Austin and Houston were on the horizon. My mother practically pushed us out of the house early on Mother’s Day to try and beat the storm headed to Austin. She had deliberated and treated herself to a one way ticket home that night. We beat out the storm. After several mildly wet days in Austin, I needed to leave for Houston. For days, I had been tracking the storms that lighted up the weather app that showed 80 percent precipitation days bleeding into one another. It was inevitable. I couldn’t avoid driving into the heart of the storm alone.
On the morning of my departure from Austin for Houston, the sky hung ominously like one large cloak of steel grey. A few fat raindrops dripped onto the windshield of the rental car and I made a decision to stop into Central Market for road snacks and an iced matcha latte. Blueberries and cherry tomatoes had made the cut of easy to pop snacks for the drive, and my caffeinated green drink would keep me energized. I headed back to the car, squeezing open the umbrella with my free hand to shield me from the rain that had picked up force, finally shutting myself inside the car. What had started as a light rain picked up force and gathered speed to become a full-blown gale.
In the parking lot, the rain pelted down with fury and the kind of force that would have made me pull the car over and wait it out. I hesitated to turn the key and shift the gear into drive. Instead, and without a sign that the rain would abate, I turned on the radio to listen to London Grammar and shifted the gear into reverse. As Hannah Reid’s ghostly voice pierced the quiet of the car amid the crazed percussion of the assaulting rain, I found comfort even as the peach pit of fear in my stomach blossomed in size. She sang Ooh, this is frightening and then followed it with Ooh, it’s like lightning. The words left my mouth, matching her pitch and with them recognition of a type of song onomatopoeia where her lyrics matched my circumstance. They caught in my throat as I tried not to cry.
With 15 percent visibility, the car edged forward as the other few drivers kept a very polite distance. Though the windshield wipers had been set to top speed, I couldn’t discern where one lane ended and the other began. My eyes shifted to focus on the brake lights of the car in front of me, letting them be a light unto my path. I found that if I sang along with the words, I could channel all of the nervousness out of my body and into the melody, letting it catch like a key turning in a door. I could separate myself from the myriad possibilities of catastrophe that could assail me on this road I had to drive alone. It was as if I had found a modicum of courage to just keep moving forward at an ant’s pace. And, eventually, the rain did abate. And, eventually, my coiled fingers around the steering wheel slackened.
This morning, without warning, I found myself back in the rental car, the rain thwacking the windshield as I was pulling out of the safe haven of the Central Market parking lot in Austin. The music unleashed a visceral response to something in the recent past on a day where I was sitting in front of my computer in Oakland, attempting to write something else. Perhaps that reaction came from not listening to London Grammar since the trip until this morning. Or, I could point to the fact that this morning, I woke up with a desire to listen to their music. Do you ever think about the cavernous rooms inside us that stay locked and inaccessible or how they quietly thrust the key into our hand at the right moment? What happens when we stop listening? What happens when we crane forward ready to receive what they have to tell us about life, about ourselves? On the wall of my office hangs a hand-lettered sign that asks a question. Everyday, I pass by it several times, reading the words and letting them take root inside. What is the story only you can write? My rental car rainstorm might be something different for you, but we all go through events we survive that feel harrowing and insurmountable at the time. It’s not everyday that they resurface. And, perhaps, it’s not everyday that we let ourselves be swept away into a memory we would rather forget. When you sit down to write, keep yourself open to what needs to be expressed. You might find as I did with the aid of that London Grammar song that the revelation given is something you need to see in order to move on and start working on the writing at hand. You, the writer-wrangler. Words, the elusive beast.
This summer has been full of coffee. Iced coffee. Head back to the previous post (and nab the Spicy Sweet Tea Glazed Chicken recipe) to learn why. I’m a passionate tea drinker but I can drink down a cup of coffee with the best of them. I’m an equal opportunity caffeineist. Initially, I had wanted to share this poem, “metamorphosis” with you in June, where the poem starts, but life got in the way and I’m glad it did. Jonathan Pacic’s affinity for coffee goes deeply enough that he has written a whole series of coffee poetry, two of which he has kindly let me share here. If you haven’t read his poem “Confessions of a Coffee Snob #3” then head there first. We will wait for you before starting the metamorphosis. The “#3” is what gets me most about that poem. Tea snobs, coffee snobs, and even macaron snobs can relate to the idea that something worth caring about is worth writing about several times over.
Back to “metamorphosis”, the poem’s lack of punctuation only reiterates the idea that summer is endless. There’s a lazy slow molasses-like quality to how time moves. I can relate to how “hot afternoons yawn.” Heat becomes a formality that gets kicked-off. As seasons change if we look for the transition in the sky we might find it floating down to our cups and into the ways we spend our days. This is what I think makes “metamorphosis” perfect for sharing as summer comes to a close. Those practices that we seek to invite into our lives as the season begins hold valuable lessons for the season to come. If we let them, we might be able to unearth the metamorphosis happening inside each of us which might just mirror what is transpiring outside.
when the conditions are perfect
and hot afternoons yawn into warm
dinners move outside
the borders of bedtime
get pushed back
and coffee kicks off
the formality of heat
and kicks back
Jonathan Pacic is a student of the moment and a teacher of fifth grade in Aurora,
Colorado. His work has appeared on the board of his classroom, the food literature
journal Alimentum, and on sticky notes in the lunchboxes of his three children. He is currently working on a collection of poetry for all readers and a middle grade novel for children. Visit his website, jonathanpacic.com to see more of his poetry and work.
You get used to 60 degree summers. Somehow, the body in all of its intelligence deduces how to survive in any environs. I visited India twice during the monsoon season of sticky long sleeves with sweat and cotton as air conditioner. I grew up in a place that might sound fictitious with its now “normal” climes of 110 degree weather. And at one time, I lived in a slice of the sparkly city by the bay that became blanketed by a dense fog, muting colors and making a hoodie summertime uniform. There was a time when if we got really desperate, we would leave our hovel, climb into our car and just drive in an attempt to chase the sunlight on the rare occasions when the dull gunmetal gray sky sucked all hope that sun would ever visit our neighborhood again. We ate soup in the summer. Threw the extra down blanket over the duvet. I would walk the few blocks from our apartment to my favorite coffeeshop chilled to the marrow and loving every moment of grey-skied summer humor.
We live in Oakland now. I’m getting used to sunshine 24/7 again with the help of cold-brewed coffee and iced tea. Call me a wuss and I will gladly accept the title. Growing up in Texas, heat means pools and ice cream. It means bringing a sweater to slap over the tank top upon going inside any building because that building is a microclimate of cold proportions, aided by air conditioning. You get used to it. My first car, a Peugeot passed down from my Tia to my Tio and then to me didn’t have air conditioning and in the summertime I would venture out, windows down, an extra blouse in my bag just in case the current one became slick with sweat. One summer during college, I lived in South Carolina and learned how to drink sweet tea to dull the ache of throbbing heat from the sun. That summer changed my life in meaningful ways: I found my love of teaching and made friendships and memories that have lasted.
This past weekend landed me in Sunnyvale for a Steeped book event and I learned that the city is aptly named. Two cookbook author-friends and I handed out samples and talked about our books with passersby of the open-air farmer’s market that brought Sunnyvalites downtown and strolling past Leigh’s Favorite Books. I caught up with Sheri, the brain behind the event. Emma passed out a Chipotle Porter with just enough of a kick in the finish to surprise the dark beer lover, of which I am one. Cheryl poured shots of a vanilla-ginger lassi that made me want to slurp down a whole glass. And I filled a small bowl with strips of fresh levain bread on which to smear either the strawberry jam or sweet tea jelly from Steeped. The sun shone on my table like a spotlight. And during the day, I met so many lovely people. A friend from my Texas youth group even stopped by. After the book signing finished, we chatted in that brief way of catching up without taking a breath in five minutes that can happen when trying to squeeze 10 years into a 30 minute window. You sometimes find how similar your stories are and that as she completes one thought, you’re nodding from a known solidarity.
Sometimes you don’t have to know the person personally to find solidarity. In the wave of people who tried jam and jelly, one woman visiting from Los Angeles who sampled the sweet tea jelly stood out. An immense joy exists when meeting other people obsessed with food. Conversation starts easily and makes unexpected detours and discoveries. Sweet tea jelly talk led to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in Long Beach which then led me to grilled chicken and the idea of creating a sweet tea glaze. Hmm, I thought. I might need to get on that. We had known each other for no longer than 3 minutes and yet experienced camaraderie through ingredient collaboration. The next day, as I sat down and began planning our menu for the week, I flipped to a page in one of my cookbooks that begged to be adapted to a version with tea. And, it’s just the right time to make this recipe what with the sunny but breezy days sweeping across Oakland. The glaze has a hint of Texas in smoky chipotles. It includes kernels of sunshine that we would eat for visual cues of summertime when the San Francisco weather looked its most bleak. But, mostly, that slick of sweetness in the guise of sweet tea jelly gives homage to South Carolina where the kudzu grows wild and friendship of youth can be evergreen.
Spicy Sweet Tea Glazed Chicken & Corn Relish
The recipe in the America’s Test Kitchen cookbook calls for oranges: orange marmalade, orange zest, and orange juice. I swapped them out for sweet tea jelly from my book Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea, grapefruit juice and grapefruit zest to counteract the sweetness with a bit of bitterness that I thought would match up well with the spiciness of chipotle. I also added a touch of chicken stock to give it a savory hint that cooks down in the reduced glaze. With the corn relish, I wanted to add more vegetables, and found that small diced zucchini paired well with the corn, cilantro and scallions. I hadn’t planned on sharing it here but liked the leftovers today so much, that I knew it was too good not to share.
Sweet Tea Glaze 1/2 cup Sweet Tea Jelly (page 19, Steeped) 1 1/2 teaspoons minced canned chipotle in adobo sauce
1 teaspoon grated grapefruit zest plus 2 tablespoons juice
1 tablespoon chicken stock
4 (12-ounce) bone-in split chicken breasts, fat trimmed
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon safflower oil
Corn Relish 1 ( ounce) bag frozen organic corn, thawed
1 small zucchini, small diced
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 scallions, chopped
Make the Glaze: whisk together the jelly, chipotle, zest, juice and stock in a bowl. Set aside.
Fold a piece of foil over a plate to create a tent and place near the stovetop. Drizzle the oil into a 12-inch fry pan placed over medium high heat and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Pat the chicken dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle salt and pepper on the chicken and add to the pan to cook for five minutes until golden brown. Turn the chicken with tongs. Cover and lower the heat to medium. Cook the chicken for about 15 minutes or until it reaches 160F. Move the chicken to the plate and pull down the foil to keep the chicken warm.
Drain all but 1 tablespoon of the fat in the pan. Add the corn and zucchini to the pan and cook for five minutes, browning it. Scoop out the corn and zucchini into a bowl. Stir in the cilantro and scallions along with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Finish off the glaze: pour the whisked jelly into the pan, still set over medium heat. Scrape the fond off the bottom of the pan and cook down the sauce by half, about 4 minutes. It will thicken upon cooling. Serve the chicken over the corn relish. Drizzle the glaze over the chicken and serve.