The View from Mary's Farm for July 2004
January 1, 1970The Magic Brew
When it was hot out, my aunt used to say to me, “Shall we make up a pitcher of iced tea?” And into her kitchen we would go and start to make the tea that she claimed once saved a young boy’s life. For the next hour, her big Colonial kitchen filled with the scent of citrus as we worked side by side, cutting up lemons and oranges, and then squeezing them in the Juicerator, a strong-arm hand juicer from the 1930s, whose design, in our opinion, had yet to be improved upon. The rinds went into the twin-handled kettle, along with a good sum of tea and lots and lots of sugar. Then came a round of steeping and brewing and straining. This is the kind of cooking that always took place in my aunt’s kitchen – slow and full of interesting ingredients. At last, the tea was ready. The resulting brew was the glorious coppery color of new honey, shot through with the pulp from the oranges and lemons. With a slotted spoon, we strained out the rinds, poured the punch into a pitcher and put it into the refrigerator to chill. A few hours later, we filled glasses with ice cubes and carried it all on a tray out to the lawn where we would sit and sip this elixir, waiting for the sun to set and the heat to subside.
The tea was our constant companion. It went with us on picnics. It was with us on boats, on hikes and in the car. It was served at breakfast, lunch and dinner and in between. We always hoped that there would be some leftover but there rarely was. More than just a drink, it was a kind of manna, that gave us life.
My aunt’s story of how her iced tea saved a life goes something like this: a young man in the neighborhood used to come every week to mow their lawn. When he stopped for a break, Aunt Peg would bring him a glass of her iced tea, which, like all the rest of us, he had learned to crave. One summer, the boy became ill and was taken to the hospital where he fell into a coma. When at last he began to show signs of life, he was asked if he wanted anything. Barely conscious, he croaked out: “Mrs. Odell’s iced tea.” My aunt was called and she quickly concocted a big batch of her famous tea, which she carried in to his hospital room. Gradually, one sip at a time, one day at a time, he revived and eventually recovered completely. Of course, whether or not the tea saved his life is probably not worth debating but that is how the story went and we all believed it, without blinking. We knew that tea. It was a magic brew that could make a cadaver rise up and dance.
And so it is, when the sun sends us onto the screened porch for relief, I get out the kettle and start brewing. The smell of tea and oranges and lemons will always take me back to those summers in my aunt’s kitchen in the 1960s. Over the years, I’ve shared the recipe with many friends. Here it is for you, too.
Squeeze four lemons and two oranges. Set the juice aside. Cut the rinds into small pieces and put them into a big pot. Cover them with 4 cups of water. Simmer for ten minutes or so, until the juice is out of the peels. Add two cups of sugar and stir until it is dissolved. Add four tablespoons of tea. Remove the pot from the heat and steep for several minutes. Strain. Add the orange and lemon juice and 8 cups of water.
Drink on very hot days. It could save your life.