It is hard to get your tea leaves read nowadays. Most places that serve tea either use tea bags or keep the tea confined in metal balls called infusers.
When these tea-making methods are used, no leaves travel to the bottom of a cup. And without tea leaves, a tea-cup reader has nothing to work with.
To get a good reading of the future, I had to get some tea made from a pot where the leaves were still allowed to roam. I got my chance the other day when John Harney was in town.
He was visiting from Salisbury, Conn., where he and his sons operate Harney & Sons Ltd. tea business. They provide "fine" teas for fancy American hotels where tea and finger sandwiches are served in the afternoons: Places like the Harbor Court in Baltimore, the Four Seasons in Washington, and The Plaza in New York. The Harneys also box their tea and sell it to the tea-drinking public, at about $10 a box, at Williams-Sonoma stores.
The Harneys do put some of their tea in bags. But for state occasions, such as the recent introduction of a "house" blend at the Harbor Court, Harney would, I figured, have his leaves on the loose. I was right. I showed up at the hotel, tea cup at the ready.
I had a cup of tea, and as Harney stood before a gathering of tea drinkers in the hotel's Brighton's restaurant expounding on tea, I tried to read my leaves.
It was difficult work, for three reasons. First, I didn't know what I was doing. The master reader in my family, my Irish grandmother, had gone to the saints before she had taught me the tea-reading art.
Secondly, the leaves I was reading weren't in the bottom of a cup. Instead they were resting in a metal strainer that the waiter had put over the cup as he poured the tea. Rather than looking like a harbinger of a pot of gold, these leaves looked more a like satellite picture of a weather front. According to the leaves in my strainer, there was a storm brewing out west.
And the third reason I was having trouble was that Harney's remarks were far more interesting than my leaves.
Harney sang the praises of boiling water. Not warm water, or hot water, but roiling, screaming, make-the-whistle-blow boiling water. Bathing an empty pot with this kind of water preheats the pot, he said. Then, when making tea, this kind of water super-saturates the tea, drawing out the color and, after five minutes, the full flavor of the leaves.
A teaspoon of boiling water clears cloudy tea. And, he added that, after an original batch of tea has grown cold or strong, pouring some more hot water into the cup can heat it up.
Harney scoffed at the inadequate tea pot. The ones with lids that fall off or spouts that dribble. He preferred tea pots with strainers that caught most of the leaves.
Harney railed against infusers. These metal balls hold the loose tea too tightly, he said, not allowing the leaves to fully stretch out and develop. In tea talk, this stretching process is called "agony." It is called the same thing in exercise class, and in both cases the "agony" is regarded as a good thing.
Harney said that the correct pronunciation of the pekoe in the ever-popular orange pekoe was "peck," not "peak." And he confirmed that Earl Grey was a real guy who had a tea named after him. But Harney denied a report, circulated by storyteller Garrison Keillor, that Earl Grey was the first guy brave enough to drink tea around surly chest-beating coffee drinkers.
After Harney finished speaking, he sat down at the table where I was sitting and waited to be interviewed. I asked him to read my tea leaves.
Harney laughed, and gave the job to Linda Blakita, the manager of the restaurant. She too, was seated at our table. Ms. Blakita, it turned out, had been studying a book lent to her by Harney called "Tea Cup Reading." The author of the book was listed only as "A Highland Seer."
Book in hand, Ms. Blakita instructed me in how to proceed. First I poured some tea laden with leaves into my cup. Next, carefully keeping the loose leaves away from my teeth, I drank the tea until just about a teaspoon of liquid was left in bottom of the cup.
Then, thinking good thoughts about my future, I swirled the cup three times and turned it upside down, dumping the contents on a saucer.
Ms. Blakita picked up the cup, turned it over and examined the leaves inside the cup. Some of the leaves, she said, had taken the form of a tree. And a tree, she said reading from the book, was a sign of prosperity.
If there were dots near the tree, she continued, the dots meant I would make "a fortune in the country." When I looked at the cup all I saw near the "tree" were more tea leaves. But the more I thought about prosperity, the more those leaves got dotty.
Finally, above the tree was another cluster of leaves. Ms. Blakita and I weren't sure what it looked like. If the cluster turned out to be a crown, that meant that "success and honor" were my future. If the cluster were a flag, it meant dangers would be inflicted on me by my enemies.
After carefully reading of the leaves, Ms. Blakita and I voted for the crown.
Confident that "success and honor" were on the horizon for me, I walked back to the office. The tea leaves had told me that evil was not going to descend upon me. But just to be sure I avoided walking under any trees with birds in them.