Shame and stupidity

TEA, three little letters, that, when interspersed with others, can bring comfort, solace, and healing, but left together on their own they detonate into an explosion of grief, shame, humiliation, regret, and stupidity.

I have lived, grown up, worked, or visited in 22 different countries of the world.  For all of them, including my own USA, tea is a fluid, hot or cold, served in cups, mugs, or glasses that are lifted to the mouth (sometimes with a sugar cube between the teeth) and swallowed.

So what is the definition?

Not in England.  When you ask a Brit, “what is tea?” there is silence as the eyes roll to the upper right, and the answer is invariably, “Ahhh.”  Tea is a beverage, yes, but I found out when living with my Yorkshire parents-in-law, that tea is also the heartiest meal of the day, around six in the evening.  It is followed by dessert, which, for some reason they called pudding, even when it isn’t.  Dessert could be fresh fruit compote, or ice cream, or apple pie, but it was still called “pudding”.  The term “supper” applied to the fish and chips or Chinese take-away that is consumed between 10pm and midnight.

The move to Bedfordshire

I thought that Bedfordshire might be different, when we moved there.  But how different could a culture be in a country the size of Alabama?   By then we had a toddler and a newborn baby, little money, and hardly any furniture. There was much to keep me focused indoors rather than out in the community.   We had few local friends then, so when the local Bible Society put on a Bunyan car trip around the county one Saturday, we were delighted to join.

Tinker and preacher

John Bunyan, you may recall, was a Puritan preacher in constant trouble with the authorities of the state religion of Charles I.   Tinker by trade, and enthusiastic evangelist by conviction, he was thrown into Bedford Prison for his unlawful preaching, which he freely did both in and out of jail.   A well-known book he wrote while incarcerated was The Pilgrim’s Progress.  It’s the story of Pilgrim and his journeys to the Celestial City (Heaven).  We were going to visit some possible sites that may have inspired it.

Strange, curious, but ready to join in.

“And bring a picnic tea,” they said.  I was startled by this request, a bit crazy not to have a major meal at home, but I was getting used to crazy.  Just as strange, in my mind as “pudding”.  I complied.

Well, it started out all right.

It was a fascinating trip, looking at this strange county in a new way, imagining Bunyan becoming inspired by his surroundings, and as he walked, writing in his head the story that would appear on paper.  Fascinating, yes, until…..

The ghastly episode

…we got to The Hill Difficulty.  It is Bedfordshire’s highest hill, which might have been difficult for a tinker with a pile of tinkery equipment, but easy for us who drove up.  This was where we were going to have tea,  and where the ghastly episode took place.    I can hardly write about it now, decades later, without re-living the shame again, and how lost and alone I felt.  My palms are perspiring on the keyboard already.

Them and us — two cultures apart.

We sat on the grass, our family a bit apart from the others, but I was watching them closely.  They took out their flasks.  We took out our flasks.  They took out their packet of biscuits.  We took out our home-made cookies (couldn’t afford packaged biscuits)….

…and our cold chicken, and our rolls, and our juice, and our coleslaw, and our carrot sticks, and our potato salad, and our cucumbers and our fruit yogurt for “pudding”.

Embarrassed politeness and humiliation.

They looked at us, smiled politely as they finished a biscuit.  We ate.  They waited.  And waited. And watched, making inane supportive comments the way Brits do when you know it’s driving them crazy and the time is wasting and there is much to see before sundown, but their British politeness demanded that they say nothing. I kept suggesting that we could eat later, but they refused to let this happen, thinking that they were being supportive, but just making the situation more excruciating. The time stretched longer, longer, longer-to-never-ending.

I honestly can’t remember any more of that day, even though the beginning had been so inspiring.  My brain had turned black until we were back in the security of our own home.

Another definition

That night I lay in bed, staring at the darkness in bitter self-criticism.  Stupid, stupid stupid! Why didn’t I remember that the Brits have a third definition for “tea”–  just a biscuit or two beside a cup of hot brew!

Curried Lentil Soup

(Vegan if you want it to be)

This soup took a lot of research.  I was looking for the taste of a dhall soup we had as children in India, comforting and not too spicy – soul food, actually. We ate it with makki ki roti, a corn bread loved by Punjabis (and me).    I looked through a scrappy paperback without a front cover and finally found something I could ponce up to get the taste I wanted.  This soup is wonderful because of its versatility.  Without too many chillies, a pan of it could be left on the doorstep of a family in need.  Or you could save it for the next day and throw in any leftovers you have. Yesterday’s stir-fries and steamed potatoes are great.  Also meat.

Bring to boil ½ lb (8 ozs, 2 cups, 235 gms) of red lentils, a finely chopped small onion, 1 teaspoon of mild curry powder, and about 1 ½ pints (24 ozs, 800ml) of water in a pan.  You want enough water to make a soup, not a dish of dhall.  Cook gently until everything is very soft.  Add 1 tablespoon creamed coconut, or some coconut milk.  Whizz all in a food processor, ensuring it is the right consistency you want for your soup.

While the lentils cook, heat oil or coconut oil in a frying pan, add one large onion finely chopped, a clove of garlic, chopped, 4 thin slices of fresh ginger root, chopped, and (here it’s up to you) 1 or 2 chillies deseeded and chopped or – as I did — a pinch of crushed red chillies.  When onions are softened, put in the food processor with the soup.  Whizz.  Season with salt.  Reheat.  Serve with a thick luxurious blob of yogurt plopped in the middle.  Probably tastier the next day.


  1. As a Yank foreigner and a nephew — what is the third definition? The soup? I see that one definition is the liquid, and the second definition is the six o’clock meal, but the third definition is … ?


    1. ‘Tea’ as a meal can be ‘afternoon tea’ at around 4-5pm or ‘high tea’ at around 5-6pm. Afternoon tea is with a small quantity of sandwiches and cakes or biscuits, just to keep body and soul together until dinner or supper; high tea is a main evening meal, an early dinner. Afternoon tea is posher than high tea.


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