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POWER TO THE PEOPLE AND PASS THE TEAPOT (FRESH-BREWED, PLEASE)

SHADES OF the '60s. I see all sorts of militant groups appearing on the scene these days, and some of the new ones concern themselves with gastronomical issues.

The Tea Tigers are simply one case in point.

The Tea Tigers are those who claim to be discriminated against simply because they prefer the beverage obtained from steeping the leaves of the Camellia sinensis shrub to the beverage that results from the roasting and grinding the beans of the Coffea arabica tree. There are a lot of tea fans out there.

And these days, they're mad as hell and aren't going to take any more.

As a dyed-in-the-wool coffee addict who speaks to no one until I've had a morning cup or two, I've watched my tea-drinking friends at early breakfast meetings ignored while the rest of the world gulps happily.

I've watched them keep on smiling until their pot of tea arrives. Late.

And so I used to think that tea drinkers were simply a different breed of cat from coffee drinkers -- kinder, gentler folk.

I don't think that way anymore.

We have a real tempest in a teapot here. In response to what I thought was a rhetorical question in a recent column -- why don't iced tea drinkers get free refills in restaurants hereabouts? -- I received a flood of mail.

Tea drinkers, as opposed to the beverage they prefer, let us hope, are very bitter indeed.

"We dine at the Hourglass, Oliver's and E.B. Green's, to name a few of the 'better establishments' where my husband is offered endless cups of hot coffee, while I, a hot tea drinker, am offered a pot of lukewarm water and a tea bag," one complained.

"Is it not possible for restaurants on this side of the border to offer a pot of brewed tea with hot water on the side, like they do in Canada?

Another letter complained: "I recently returned from a vacation in Atlanta, where all restaurants readily refill glasses of iced tea just as local restaurants refill coffee cups.

"We never had to look for our waitress. She was just there pouring the tea."

I also heard from G. Fortrain Jr., who claims to have been in the food service industry for nearly 20 years. That reader blames the whole tea problem on money.

Wouldn't you know?

"A majority of restaurants will use a presweetened iced tea mix that can be made up ahead of time and refrigerated," Fortrain says, discussing the iced beverage exclusively.

"Hot coffee, on the other hand, is usually brewed one pot at a time so that you can have it fresh."

Why?

"Most of us are aware what old coffee tastes like, and most people aren't crazy about refrigerated coffee that has been reheated, so the faster the restaurant can get rid of the freshly brewed coffee, the better.

"Iced tea holds up a little better than coffee, and the restaurant owner knows he can get more money for it."

This reader's suggestion is simple enough: "Order a pot of hot tea and a glass of ice with lemon. Sugar is usually already on the table, so you can make your own iced tea. And if you feel like having another, just ask for more hot water and you won't have to pay the excess freight charge."

Not a bad idea.

Tea Tigers, unite! You have nothing to lose aside from a used bag or two.

The new militancy in the food world doesn't necessarily stop with tea, however. Another activist group is waiting in the wings that deals with our very civic identity.

Let's call this group the Wing Waivers. (Whisper their name.)

There are a lot of diners out there, it turns out, who are getting mighty tired of having Buffalo identified coast to coast with chicken appendages.

"Wings are one of the worst foods you can possibly consume," writes one reader angrily.

"The fatty oils dribble down your lips, also shooting up your blood cholesterol level, making you a nice target for a heart attack."

"What a mascot for a city -- a real symbol for a blue-collar town," another reader sneers.

Right on, culinary freethinkers. The '90s, too, are a time to question the establishment.

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