Welcome to Tea. Toast. & Trivia.
This is the second podcast in the series called, “It’s all about tea.”
So put the kettle on and join me for Tea, Toast and Trivia, where we will discuss the mysteries and adventures of tea: their origins, myths, aromas and delicious tastes.
My name is Rebecca Budd and I’m looking forward to sharing this moment with you.
*Sound of Boiling Water*
The sound you heard was water boiling. I am making a special cup of tea today, one that is a reminder of friendships, past and present and the conversations in between. This story dates to the early 1970’s when I moved from Winnipeg to Edmonton. It was a time of beginnings and I was eager for new adventures. For me, the 1970’s meant change and forging new possibilities and opportunities. I was ready to meet new friends, live on my own and embark on an academic journey at University of Alberta.
Canada is a huge country. There are 1,304.8 kilometres between Winnipeg and Edmonton, which according to my Google sources takes about 13 hours and 21 minutes to drive. It was no small move. Tonight, as I wait for my tea to steep, I take a backward glance over forty years and congratulate myself on choosing a city that changed the trajectory of my life.
Edmonton was where I was introduced to a famous blend of tea flavoured with a secret recipe (of course it would be secret) of orange rind and sweet spice. Oh, the aroma was marvelous. It also was a nod to my favourite young Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen.
“Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China”
Ah, Leonard Cohen. Did Suzanne really serve him tea and oranges that came all the way from China? Yes, she did! According to many sources, when asked this question Leonard would reply: “She fed me a tea called Constant Comment, which has small pieces of orange rind in it, which gave birth to the image.”
*Sound of pouring tea*
That was the sound of pouring my tea.
Constant Comment became my constant companion those years. Even now, I keep a stash of Constant Comment teabags, wrapped in colourful foil, that when opened, releases a feel-good cinnamon and orange fragrance. Ahhhhh And I say this, without any prompting from The Bigelow Tea Company.
Speaking of “feel good” sensations, the legend behind Constant Comment adds to the enjoyment of taking tea. You may think that a tea connoisseur fashioned the blend. After all, Constant Comment remains one of Bigelow’s most popular products. It was an interior designer, Ruth Campbell Bigelow, who was the mastermind.
The year was 1945. The depression and war years had been difficult for Ruth and her husband. But ever resourceful, Ruth had an idea. She was a voracious tea enthusiast. Her travels to England had introduced her to the taste of fine teas.
A design colleague and friend, Bertha Nealey, suggested Ruth use of an old colonial tea recipe for making orange and spice flavored tea in stone containers. The formula came from Mrs. Nealey’s grandmother, Mary Anne Armstrong, who prepared this tea for her plantation table at Lynch River, S. C. But the recipe went even farther back. It was Mary Anne Armstrong’s mother who originated the formula in the days of the Jamestown settlers.
Working in her home kitchen, Ruth modified the “colonial recipe” and developed the blend. It took 6 months to perfect.
But what to name the tea? Here is where serendipity stepped in.
A July 1945 article by noted food writer Clementine Paddleford tells this story about the origin of the name:
“The tea was ready for market, but no name seemed to suit. Then it happened this way: One of Mrs. Bigelow’s Park Avenue friends was giving an afternoon party, and it was suggested she try the new blend. Not a word was said to the guests regarding its novelty, yet everyone spoke of the tea’s aroma, its flavor—there was “constant comment.” A good name, why not? Labels were made and the tea was hurried to the stores, where it is selling at around 75 cents for the two-and-one-quarter ounce jar. Expensive? But here’s a tea so flavorful that three quarters of a teaspoon make six bracing cups of aromatic spiciness”
Clementine Paddleford goes on to write:
“Constant Comment” is a blend of the Old South being introduced to Manhattan’s tea tipplers by Ruth Campbell Bigelow and Mrs. Bertha West Nealey. These women, deploring the decline of the tea table in favor of the cocktail, hope to return the tea hour to its rightful importance by presenting a family of glamorized blends which promise to make tea truly “the sovereign drink of pleasure.” “Constant Comment” is a Ceylon tea, the best that can be purchased in the present wartime market and is blended with processed orange and numerous spices.”
To this day, the formula is unchanged from the original created by Ruth Campbell Bigelow. It remains a closely guarded secret.
The idea of an interior designer creating an iconic tea blend is a reminder that anything is possible. Two women who shared a love of tea and offered their idea to an unknown destiny changed the trajectory of their lives, much like my move to Edmonton those many years ago. Life has a way of evolving in ways that surprise and delight. We are born for exploration. Our curiosity and imagination have the power to open doors of possibilities.
So, until next time, my dear listeners, safe travels wherever your adventures take you. And don’t forget to bring along tea.