When the blue bowl always appeared the last week of May, the Baltimore summer had arrived.
My grandmother, Lily Rose Stewart Monaghan, lived by a set of (( unswerving household rules. Once she was set in her ways, there was little change during her 84 years of life. She always claimed she hated Baltimore summers, with their heat and humidity. She also said she hated to cook. As a child, I found it highly amusing that some of her finest culinary offerings arrived during the season of such wretched weather.
No one ever made iced tea to match Lily Rose's. Iced tea? What does it take to boil water and add tea? It should be simple. Not so. Lily had a formula that would have made all the McCormicks sit up and take notice.
Her process began with a large azure blue bowl, an old relic in that Guilford Avenue house. It was a heavy piece of crockery made by the ancient and esteemed firm of Villeroy & Boch when it was still in Dresden, Germany. The word "Concord" appeared on its base, a reference to the grape vine pattern that encircled the bowl's rim.
Lily preferred loose tea from an A&P store. She bought it by the pound and thought tea bags were stupid and costly.
Nearly all her dinner preparation was done early in the morning when the kitchen was still reasonably cool. But you couldn't make the tea early. It was governed by a certain time factor.
Just after lunch, when she made hot tea in a large ceramic pot, she put a large basin of water -- not a kettle -- on the stove and brought it to boil.
In the meantime, she'd packed two metal tea caddies (those circular drums with screw-on tops) with loose tea, added several heaping scoops of sugar and squeezed three or four lemons. All this went into the bottom of the blue bowl. The lemon skins went in too and stayed there throughout the process.
The lemon was the secret. At the grocer's, she felt every lemon to find the ones with the thinnest skins. She always said a thick-skinned lemon yielded little juice. And before she squeezed her lemons, she rolled them hard with the palm of her hand on a solid marble slab where she made her pie crusts. By this time, the battered lemon was ready to surrender every drop of its juice.
Once the water came to a boil, she took the pot off the stove and poured it over the tea caddies, sugar and lemons. She then covered the bowl with a tea towel to keep the flies away and took her afternoon nap. The tea required about four hours' steeping and cooling to reach its full potency.
The dinner hour fell at the stroke of 5. Tall glasses lined the dinner table. There was always more tea than ice, as ice was something of a scarce commodity in the freezing compartment of the humming GE refrigerator, always called the ice box.
It would be hard to calculate the brute force of the caffeine of that iced tea. It was strong, heady, sweet and lemony. Some guests didn't like it. Too sweet. Too much citrus. Too much tea. Others called it a punch, which it really was. Only in two or three other Baltimore households was I ever served a glass of iced tea that came anywhere close to the formula Lily used.
The stuff had a short life. If the afternoon was hot, it disappeared quickly. The tea was a fabulous accompaniment to a Baltimore summer meal -- the fried tomatoes, soft crabs, potato salad and corn, with strawberry short cake or lemon chiffon pie for dessert. My grandfather said his wife was the greatest seafood cook in Baltimore. I silently disagreed. Everything she cooked was great. Nobody could boil a lowly lemon and have it taste as good as hers tasted.