I’d been reading Marcus du Sautoy’s The Number Mysteries: A Mathematical Odyssey Through Everyday Life because I still haven’t decided whether to make an inter-library loan request for Martin Albrow’s Bureaucracy or just to give up on the idea of fun altogether. Or whether I mean David Beetham’s Bureaucracy instead.
Anyway, de Sautoy gets going in a right jaunty chapter about how tea bag shapes were revolutionized in the 1990s when Tetley thought to try “circular” and it was incredibly popular. And PG had to think very hard about a shape not so fusty and old-fashioned as “mostly square I guess”. But the book mentioned part of the design challenge was how long the average British tea-maker left the bag in the hot water. Apparently it’d be as little as twenty seconds, short enough that in the mostly-square-I-guess bags not even all the tea leaves would get wet.
It’s left me stunned. I grew up with the American fashion of making tea, which is to put the bag into the water and leave it there forever. The only reason we ever throw out a mug is because it’s gotten stuffed full of spent tea bags, jammed into a dense mass of compressed diamond-like sourness. But I know that’s extreme. I hadn’t realized that the British way of making tea was so extreme on the other side. It’s left me wondering how tea was ever rationed, back in the day. It seems like even in the heights of wartime and Austerity Britain rationing they could’ve satisfied everyone’s tea tastes by just shipping a cardboard box labelled “tea” with instructions to bump it against the teapot three times before serving.
This is the eternal joy of learning: it makes you realize how little you understand the world.