I can’t imagine what you all are thinking looking at that headline. Maybe, “Courtney, it’s 2022.” Or “Do you remember 2021? Because I do.”
The name of the tea is “2021 is a gift.” I got a 25 gram sample of this because a full cake was extremely expensive (more expensive by gram than anything I've spent on tea so far), but the description made me curious, and the name made me feel nostalgic for the decent year that maybe we could have had instead of the one we did. And also, I kind of wondered what a tea that cost more than a dollar per gram tasted like.
I always love the experience of tea: breaking a piece of the cake off, putting it in the pot, smelling the leaves. These smelled amazing: sweet and almost floral with an earthy tint to them. There was a satisfying chunk when they landed in my clay pot. I was thinking about my tea newsletter as I waited for the first brew. Maybe something about looking back on 2021 with more fondness?
The first steep was…actually kind of bland. It didn’t really taste much of anything. Okay, fine. Sometimes with a new tea you understeep. These things happen.
The second steep was just a little bitter and astringent. Not my favorite. Some people do appreciate these flavors, but I am not a huge fan of bitter. (That’s why this is a tea newsletter, and not a coffee one.)
The third steep was even more bitter and astringent. To put it bluntly, I hated it. I don’t like bitter. I could separate out other tastes in this tea—a mild sweetness, a complex round flavor at the very beginning—but the bitter was too overpowering. But I was here through the bitter (heh) end, so I moved on to steep four. And steep five.
By steep five, the bitterness had started to fade a little, but so had all the other flavors.
(In the interest of fairness, there was one major point in favor of this tea: It got me tea drunk. This blog explains a little bit about the chemistry of being tea drunk, for those who are curious.)
Objectively, this is probably a very, very good tea. After drinking it, I felt amazing—happy, focused, content. I just don’t like the flavor.
We interrupt this tea for a 2021-style interrogation
We live in fun times so I figured that I should check to see if maybe my taste buds were malfunctioning for COVID-related reasons. 🙄 I realize that at-home tests are not perfect, but it’s what I have, so…
On to test another hypothesis.
2021 is a gift: let’s try it in a gaiwan
In the interest of fairness, I also wondered if perhaps the issue was the brewing vessel. How you brew changes the taste of the tea. Maybe a clay teapot was not the ideal way to brew this particular tea?
I switched to a gaiwan (a bowl with a lid–you use the lid to strain out the leaves as you pour). There are differences between tea brewed in a clay pot and tea brewed in a gaiwan. Clay absorbs steeping liquid in a way that the glazed gaiwan will not.
So I loaded up a gaiwan with dry tea leaves and started again.
Steep one: still tastes of almost nothing, but it’s a little more pleasant of an almost nothing than before.
Steep two: Those bitter, astringent notes are still present, but the flavor of the tea is rounder and the sweetness is more lingering.
Steep three: Here comes a confession. Humans tend to tell stories about the world we live in, and we want those stories to make sense. But sometimes (often, even) things don’t happen for a reason, or they aren’t connected to anything else, or they don’t wrap up in a satisfying fashion. There isn’t always a narrative.
Some of you may have been wondering “Courtney, you didn’t like this tea, so why did you brew it again?” and the answer is because in my head, I was constructing a narrative in which I didn’t like the tea at all. Not with a goat, not in a boat. Not in a pot, not in a gaiwan. Why?
Answer: Because it would have been a funny story to be able to say “2021 is a gift? No. Ha ha ha. It is not. I tried, and it sucks. Begone, mid-pandemic-year, and consign thyself to the abyss where thou belongst.”
But. Reality doesn’t care about my narratives. I actually liked steep three in a gaiwan. All the same flavors were there—the bitter astringency, the hint of sweetness—but the proportions changed. The soup was richer and more complex. There goes that narrative.
By steep four, the tea made me think of windchimes in a light breeze. You hear one note, then another, then another, and then there’s a heady gust of wind and they all sound together. That’s the way this tea tasted. First the full, round flavor of the tea. Then the sweetness. Then a hint of bitterness, but so delicate, and accompanied by so many other flavors that it’s satisfying rather than distracting.
The end result is that this was a tea that I didn’t like, and then a tea that I liked, and it was always tea that got me tea drunk. I finished it feeling contented and happy and deeply satisfied.
In other words, it was nothing like 2021 at all. This tea defied all my attempts at a narrative. Boo.
The monsters we DEfy by LESLYE PENELOPE
I’ve been a fan of Leslye Penelope since she first published Song of Blood and Stone many many years ago. I had The Monsters We Defy on preorder, and when it came out last week, I started reading it immediately.
This is a historical fantasy set in 1920s America, and the first paragraphs drew me into the story with a voice and narration that absolutely called to me.
Some folks say it wasn’t just being born with a caul that made Clara Johnson ornery as a red hornet, it was being born at the crossroads. Her spirit, unlike most, had a choice to make right there at the beginning. Cold or hot, salty or sweet, lion or lamb. She came into this world through one of the forks in the road, and Clara being Clara, she chose the rockier way.
See, her mama and daddy was migrating up North from Gastonia, North Carolina, riding in the back of a wagon with her grandmother and two other distant kinfolk from down that way, when her mama’s water broke. They was about to cross the Virginia state line, just outside a place called Whitetown, which didn’t give nobody in that vehicle a good feeling, when they had to pull over to the side of the road—one of those roads that no Colored person wanted to be on at night—just so that gal could push that baby out.
The Monsters We Defy is set in the Black communities of 1920s Washington DC. There’s magic and spirits of all kinds, and an ancient ring of power. Clara Johnson is the kind of thorny, difficult, imperfect heroine that I love. She helps regular people negotiate deals with powerful spirits—deals that have two parts. There’s a Charm (the thing the person wants) and a Trick that attaches (you know how this works). The story unfolds like it’s being told over a fire, slowly, patiently, as you come to understand what is happening and why it’s now Clara’s destiny to set people free—including herself.
And like many of my favorite pieces of historical fiction, the author’s note reveals that much of the world we saw is real, right down to Clara’s origin story at seventeen years of age. This was a haunting, gorgeous story.
Some of you know that I got a new cat. I’ve started training her basically to save my life and hers. A lot of the things we’re working on are ways to be a better cat: what if we don’t jump up on the counters while I’m cooking? What if we got your energy out by jumping around and touching this pen, instead of attacking my feet?
It took me about two seconds to teach her to run after a pen and two weeks to get her to sit on command. But! She now does it.
The countess conspiracy
A long time ago, I chose an undergraduate institution in part because it meant that I would not have to take any more math and science classes and I thought at the time I did not want to take any more.
There were a number of things that didn’t work about that particular institution. The tuition was too high. I scraped together every spare penny I had to pay for Semester One only to realize that Semester Two was going to be out of my reach. My brain chemistry was not being my friend. Partway through my first semester of non-math-or-science classes, I became obsessed with complex numbers. (It’s a long story. Blame Euler.)
Eventually I absconded in the middle of the second semester, tuition still unpaid, classes unattended. I told three people I was leaving and didn’t know how to explain, “I can’t actually do any schoolwork or pay tuition but I have a notebook filled with complex numbers??” so I told them something else that was vaguely true and contributed to the situation but wasn’t the actual cause of it.
I then spent nine months working for a company that delivered Whirlpool appliances, before going back to a completely different university, where I ended up (after, uh, more shenanigans) getting a double major in math and chemistry. I use this degree all the time as a romance author.
I mean, this is kind of a joke, but it kind of isn’t. One of the things I needed to learn in order to finish my mathematics degree was patience: the patience to sit with a proof, to go through the things you know and the things they imply, to hold a bunch of pieces that maybe connect but maybe don’t, and to fit them together. Sometimes the solution comes in a flash of inspiration, like a gift that just opens up. Often it’s by brute force.
I have some books that are brute force books and some books that just seem to write themselves once they’re started down the right road, and The Countess Conspiracy is one of the latter ones. It’s a book that’s a love letter to the experience of finding out something you didn’t know; it’s also a book about the politics of exclusion in science. It’s a book about two people who are hiding their loves—Violet for the work that she’s doing, and Sebastian for Violet—and who learn to stop hiding.
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