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  • Kate Malone Hesser

Sensory Association

I’ve written a little bit about my experiences with tea and sensory memory mostly related to an association I make between the flavor of a tea and a memory of a place or point in time. Also very powerful are the memories I have of drinking certain teas at certain places or with special people. They are some of my clearest and important recollections.

Whenever I taste high-grown Ceylon tea, with its peachy and fleshy feeling on my tongue, I think of my grandmother’s iced tea in the summer. She had this old glass Tropicana bottle in which she would mix very sweet Lipton tea. I would wait for the fleeting moment when I would get the “real tea” flavor after the wave of sugar. It was the type of feeling that would help me relax into the heat of the day. I think of my siblings and my cousins at the ages they were then, running around the backyard and overworking that poor porch swing.

Low-grown Ceylons, especially those from the Uva region of Sri Lanka, with their eucalyptus and menthol qualities bring me back to a time when I was a young fundraiser traveling back and forth to New York to meet with alumni in the stately Midtown lunch clubs. The smells and feelings of those old rooms - oiled leather, dark wood and lemon furniture polish, pipe tobacco, whiskey, and the dark crust of popovers - are all in a sip of this tea for me. It is a wonderful way to revisit a time in my life when I was welcomed into a whole new world.

Jasmine tea, with its blueberry and basil aroma, reminds me of playing with dolls with my sister because it was the eighties and everything was scented like artificial fruit. It also makes me think of a pleasant lunch I had in San Francisco. As we looked out toward Alcatraz, we sipped our tea and my companion told me that while she lived in San Francisco, she crossed the Golden Gate bridge every day just to get some sunshine.

My grandmother put a pat of butter on top of all the steamed vegetables she put on her table - and that is what I think of whenever I drink Mao Feng. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, green beans, lima beans, and artichokes all salted and creamy.

Growing up on Cape Cod I have had my share of delicious seafood feasts. When we would have steamers, we would put out two little bowls at each place setting - one for melted butter and one for a serving of the broth made from steaming the clams. Steamed green teas, like Sencha or Gyokuro, and some Bi Luo Chun, have those brothy flavors - greens, marine, and a tiny bit of salt.

The last one I have for today, and probably the weirdest is about darker or amber oolongs. There is a flavor I pick up when the tea hits the middle of my tongue that reminds me of what we used to call “oak tag” when I was in kindergarten. It’s a type of cream-colored paper stock, essentially what manilla folders are made of. It somehow has a scent that is woodier and richer than paper. We would use it to make patterns for shapes or letters that we would then trace and color. If you had a really steady hand, for a six year old, you might have been chosen to make a pattern for the whole class to use. It was a big deal.

So far, I haven’t had a tea flavor that I associate with a bad memory, so I feel free to look for more memory triggers and to even make new ones. I love having teas that I share with particular friends and the possibility of going back to good times in just one sip!

What are some of your best tea memories?

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