Thursday, January 31, 2013

Mrs. Jarley's Tea and Brandy

It's odd how smells can come back to you after years and years. Now and then I walk into a room and realize that it smells exactly like my kindergarten classroom, or like the break room at my first job.  The first time I smelled lapsang suchong tea, I was immediately reminded of my grandparents' old garage, which I hadn't smelled in years.

The first time I tried to drink the stuff, I nearly gagged - it tasted like a it was brewed from the gunk scooped up after a forest full of old people slathered in unguent burned to ashes. But before I finished the first cup, I had acquired the taste to such an extent that I was licking the last drops from the bottom of the cup.

Lapsang is sometimes called "The whiskey of tea." I never thought to actually add booze to it, but when spiked tea came up in a Dickens book, and when research showed that lapsang was about as "accurate" a tea as I could probably get, it seemed like a natural.

I really love The Old Curiosity Shop, which is the story of Little Nell and her awful grandfather running around the country while pursued by Quilp, the evil dwarf, and meeting a series of grotesques. At its best, it has a sort of hypnotic fairy tale vibe about it. It does, however, fall a bit into melodramatics. Oscar Wilde once said (spoiler alert) that you would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing. And he's right - that scene seems WAY over the top today. Little Nell herself is widely slammed for being obnoxiously sweet and innocent.

But this isn't really fair - she's fairly sheltered, but she's also pretty tough and able to take charge of most situations when her grandfather is drunk and gambling away the last of their money for the millionth time. And she thinks Punch and Judy shows, in which Punch kills his wife, his baby, and everyone else he meets, are hilarious.

Among the weirdos Nell and her grandfather meet on their travels is Mrs. Jarley, who runs Jarley's Wax Works, a traveling show of wax dummies of notorious murderers and their victims. She recruits Nell to be a sort of tour guide, in a scene dear to my heart, since it's so close to my own night job as a ghost tour guide.  When JArley shows Nell the wax works and teaches her the patter, you can tell Dickens is having fun:

             'That,' said Mrs Jarley in her exhibition tone, as Nell touched a figure at the beginning of the platform, 'is an unfortunate Maid of Honour in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, who died from pricking her finger in consequence of working upon a Sunday. Observe the blood which is trickling from her finger; also the gold-eyed needle of the period, with which she is at work.'
          All this, Nell repeated twice or thrice: pointing to the finger and the needle at the right times: and then passed on to the next.
        'That, ladies and gentlemen,' said Mrs Jarley, 'is Jasper Packlemerton of atrocious memory, who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all, by tickling the soles of their feet when they were sleeping in the consciousness of innocence and virtue. On being brought to the scaffold and asked if he was sorry for what he had done, he replied yes, he was sorry for having let 'em off so easy, and hoped all Christian husbands would pardon him the offence... Observe that his fingers are curled as if in the act of tickling, and that his face is represented with a wink, as he appeared when committing his barbarous murders.'
    When Nell knew all about Mr Packlemerton, and could say it without faltering, Mrs Jarley passed on to... the old lady who died of dancing at a hundred and thirty-two, the wild boy of the woods, the woman who poisoned fourteen families with pickled walnuts, and other historical characters and interesting but misguided individuals.

When they first come across Mrs. Jarley, she's drinking tea and spiking it with a bottle that she hides away and declines to share. According to The Convivial Dickens, it's a bottle of brandy.

When it came time to do a "Dickens drink" that involved tea, I tried to look up what sort of tea Mrs. Jarley might have been drinking in The Old Curiosity ShopThere's a lot that's been written about the "tea ceremony" that was becoming popular in England right around the time the book was first released, but it was very difficult to find what KIND of tea they were into. Obviously, most of the fruity and herbal teas on my shelf were probably not "authentic." But lapsang existed back then, so I went with that one. Really, I wanted to post about this drink just to quote the above passage, which is a favorite of mine. I wish there were a Chicago killer with a name as much fun to say as "Jasper Packlemerton" that I could talk about on the ghost tours.  MRS JARLEY'S TEA AND BRANDY
1 bag lapsang suochong tea
1 measure (a "tot") of brandy
1 cup or so of hot water

Not much to say about this drink - it really still just tastes like lapsang tea, only with a bit more of a kick and a bit more of a burn.  Not a tough enough cocktail to make as a normal cocktail, really, or as classy as the fairly similar whiskey toddy (which I'll get to eventually). Really, this is just a way to spike your tea if you have a drinking problem and can't imagine drinking anything that isn't spiked, which I suspect is the case with Mrs. Jarley.

There are a lot of great scenes in this book - particularly the comedic portions. The melodrama doesn't always hold up as well, but the fairy tale vibe tends to carry the Nell scenes as rural and suburban England begins to seem like a strange, enchanted land. Just read this portion from Chapter 45 and try not to feel sucked into an eerie sort of dream world:

      A long suburb of red brick houses, some with patches of garden-ground, where coal-dust and factory smoke darkened the shrinking leaves, and coarse rank flowers; and where the struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace.... a long, flat, straggling suburb passed, they came by slow degrees upon a cheerless region, where not a blade of grass was seen to grow...
     Advancing more and more into the shadow of this mournful place, its dark depressing influence stole upon their spirits, and filled them with a dismal gloom. On every side, and as far as the eye could see into the heavy distance, tall chimneys, crowding on each other and presenting that endless repetition of the same dull, ugly form, which is the horror of oppressive dreams, poured out their plague of smoke, obscured the light, and made foul the melancholy air. On mounds of ashes by the wayside, sheltered only by a few rough boards, or rotten pent-house roofs, strange engines spun and writhed like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains, shrinking in their rapid whirl from time to time as though in torment unendurable, and making the ground tremble with their agonies. Dismantled houses here and there appeared, tottering to the earth, propped up by fragments of others that had fallen down, unroofed, windowless, blackened, desolate, but yet inhabited. Men, women, children, wan in their looks and ragged attire, tended the engines, fed their tributary fires, begged upon the road, or scowled half-naked from the doorless houses. Then came more of the wrathful monsters, whose like they almost seemed to be in their wildness and their untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again; and still, before, behind, and to the right and left, was the same interminable perspective of brick towers, never ceasing in their black vomit, blasting all things living or inanimate, shutting out the face of day , and closing in on all these horrors with a dense dark cloud.
    Man. Sounds like something out of The Care Bears and the Land Without Feelings.

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