Tea And Sympathy

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Arthur Dobrin and his teapot collection.

I grew up in a household where food mattered. My mother was a good cook and her mother and my other grandmother were great cooks and excellent bakers. My parents also took my brother and me to restaurants where we would dine on fine food.

Alas, the cuisine my husband grew up with can be summed up in the immortal blessing of his father before each meal: “Let’s eat and get it over with.” This was not a judgment. Moe Dobrin seemed to be as indifferent to good food as was his wife, Ann.

Ann had the capacity to buy an excellent cut of beef and render it lifeless. I think it was lack of interest. Being a homemaker was not her cup of tea. She was a pretty woman who worked in a hat shop and loved it when a drawing of her wearing one of the hats was used in an advertisement.

Here are some of her signature dishes:

—Broad noodles swimming in warm milk
—Salad—iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumber and sliced tomato on a plate. No dressing
—Canned mixed vegetables
—The seven-day tea bag

She was one of the early fusion cooks. She would open a can of Campbell’s soup and whatever was left was put in a jar; that little bit of soup was added to another can of Campbell’s soup the next time soup was on her menu. Have you ever tried chicken noodle, cream of mushroom and beef with vegetables and barley? Ummm-mmm. No!

Oh, what an innocent my dear husband-to-be was living in his parent’s Woodhaven apartment. Visiting me in New Jersey when we were dating, he was astounded to see pepper on my dining room table, thinking it was only available in restaurants. When he watched me finishing baking a cake, he asked what I was going to do with the leftover flour. In his defense I have to say that his father delivered pastries and bread to grocery stores so there was never a need for anyone to bake anything in his childhood home.

Dare I tell you about the one dessert Ann did prepare? Layers of different flavored Jell-O.

Somehow she managed to create a gummy skin at the bottom, a skill I have never perfected. For extra special occasions, she would sometimes embed canned fruit cocktail in one of the layers. I once tried to cook a meal in Ann’s kitchen. The only spice in the closet was paprika and the top of the tin was rusted closed.

To be fair, there was one dish that Ann made to perfection and that was potato kugel. It was manna from heaven—a crisp outer coating of densely packed finely grated potatoes.
Fortunately there was a connoisseur struggling to rise from beneath this mountain of indifference. It emerged in 1961 when Arthur was attending his Army reserve meetings in Manhattan. He passed by a tea importer on his way to meetings and stopped in to have a taste. Trumpets blared…doors swung open…at last something to wrap his taste buds around. Arthur discovered tea and his world has never been the same.

Arthur Dobrin’s Tea Tips

Making a good cup of tea requires that you start with good quality loose tea. Use fresh water; raise the water to the proper temperature for the type tea you are using (boiling for black, tepid for green); put the tea directly in a pot (without a mesh or metal tea holder, which prevents the leaves from expanding); steep for the proper amount of time for the type of tea you are using (shortest for green, longest for black).

Packaged tea is generally second-rate. I order most of mine online. My favorite for morning is Kenya black, which I get from Ajiri Tea. This strong tea needs boiling water and five minutes of steeping time.

Most of the rest of my teas I receive from Adagio, a company that is socially responsible by sourcing its product directly from tea farmers. With each tea comes directions regarding quantities to use per cup, water temperature and steeping time.

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