A few months ago, I bought a tall can of organic dried peppermint from the Broad Street Market and tucked it into my cabinet next to the espresso machine. I think I bought the peppermint tea purely out of nostalgia. I hadn’t drunk mint tea in years. I, in posh old age, had graduated to chicer beverages like green tea or French pressed coffee, or–my usual at The Scholar in Harrisburg (the only place where I have a “usual” of anything)–an americano. In 2005, I had learned to drink coffee on my aunt Colleen’s back patio in Holland while eating some gourmet European chocolate dessert and watching the sun set, and afterwards, I used to boast that learning to drink espresso was somehow intimately connected to growing up, alongside other admirably adult tasks like learning to eat with chopsticks or driving aggressively in heavy traffic.
But mint tea was actually my first hot beverage. About every other morning when my farming father got up early to milk cows at 3am, my mom would treat our entire family to a big breakfast–“dippy” eggs, toast, and homemade strawberry jam. She had one flowered teapot that she’d fill with dried mint leaves picked from bank at the end of our lawn, and she’d fill a teacup and place the sugar bowl next to my plate. Cradling the cup of weak-colored liquid in my palms, I’d sit with my siblings on the kitchen heat register that pumped the room full with boiling warmth. I’d wonder what could ever be better in the world: I had a family around a kitchen table lit with yellow light, the sweetness of pink-red jam, and the way the butter-soaked toast buckled beneath the weight of egg and yolk.
In the summer, my mother would pluck fresh tea leaves from the bank and boil them in an open kettle on the stove, eventually filling a pitcher with the sugared liquid and ice cubes as a breeze fringed with the smell of cut alfalfa blew in and out of the kitchen screen door. In July, when my grandmother picked sweet corn to sell by the dozen under the shade trees in front of my cousins’ farmhouse, my brothers, sister, cousins, and I capitalized on the increased in traffic and sold the same cold mint tea in plastic cups for 25 cents each. One year later, when we set up the business again, we adjusted the price to 30 cents for inflation.
My older brother Chris once gathered armfuls of mint leaves and spread them on newspaper in our garage like my mother would lay out peaches to ripen, and when the tea dried, he packed the leaves carefully into plastic freezer quarts and stashed them somewhere for my mother to use. For the rest of my junior high and high school days, dried mint tea seemed never-ending, like the Biblical story of the woman with the bottomless jar of oil which provided everything for her until she had no more pots left to fill.
But my parents eventually graduated to Eight O’Clock Coffee and I to chai lattes and Maxwell House International Cafe Decaffeinated Sugar-Free Swiss Mocha, piling the red-lidded tins around my dorm room to display my intellect and my taste in fine things. Tea bags marked my growing up which then were replaced by fair trade coffee in wide-mouthed mugs at the Kind Cafe in Selinsgrove, Italian hot chocolate drunk with Ellen Witoff while overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, then Vietnamese coffee at Garden Vietnamese in Harrisburg, as if beverages could map the footsteps of a departure.
In 2007, after accepting an English assistantship position in Talange, France, I bought espresso at 5:30am during my layover at the airport in Milan, Italy, due to a promise I’d made my boyfriend, and I sipped it standing up while surrounded by dark-haired businessmen. From there, I flew to Luxembourg where I took a train north to sleep off my jetlag at my same aunt’s familiar home in Holland. When I woke up–proud and adult for having traveled from Philadelphia to Milan to Luxembourg to Brussels to Rosendaal, the Netherlands, in a single day of French, Dutch, and Italian–Colleen and I drank Dutch koffee from black and white patterned mugs while sitting again on her back patio. Afterwards, she walked me around her backyard and garden to show me the new landscaping that I hadn’t seen in two years, and Pennsylvania peppermint was there.
I don’t really remember the details–how the plants had been brought through customs, or whether or not they’d been a gift from my grandmother–but I remember that they had been from the farm in Pennsylvania. When I moved to Harrisburg in 2009, the first gift I asked my younger brother to bring was a plant of peppermint from the bank from my family’s backyard. He brought it to me in a grocery bag with the dirt stripped from brittle roots. I placed it carefully in a pot in the sunroom next to the Thai basil, like a ceremony. I just watered it a moment ago.
These days, I drink peppermint tea only at nights, especially cold ones, cupping my hands around the little black and white mugs that Colleen bought me in Holland to match hers. I drink mint tea only with honey. As I sip, I remember making tea in the evenings in Talange with my German roommate Tobias as the French winter wind blew desolate around our apartment. I remember the raw honey given to me that same year by a French teacher named Catherine, who had a family member had a beehive, and how certain she had been to make sure the glass jar was always refilled when I wanted more. I remember the Moroccan tea ceremony that was performed for me on the day before I left France in 2008, with its imported mint leaves and frosted tea glasses and ritual pouring. I think about drinking tea with Rachel Fetrow after she returned from Senegal during our junior year in college, or the tea shared with Alli Engle on the frosted winter morning when I arrived in Chile this past June.
I think about the voyages away and home again.
Metz, France, June 2010