This is how you make crumpets, I think.
Go home during your lunch hour. When you get there, clean off the kitchen table that’s a mess (and a reflection of your state of mind over the past week). (Start to feel less distracted and confused now that the table is clear. Our mind creates our space, and actions we take in our space direct the mind.)
Open the package of crumpets you got at Trader Joe’s that has an illustration of the Houses and Parliament on it and Big Ben even though you know Big Ben is the name of the bell, not the tower. The package will also say “Made in the U.S.A.” on it and that is strangely comforting and a reminder of the fact that you’re borrowing a food thing born in another country and you have no idea how it’s actually supposed to taste or the proper way to make it even though it’s probably not as complex as you’re making it. Think about the mystery of authenticity for a while.
Put two crumpets in your toaster oven and turn it on. Wander around your house trying to get a few tasks done while they happily toast. Fail at completing your chosen task because of an error in your banking app on your phone.
Check on the crumpets. The package said they should be crunchy and golden brown. Note that the crumpets are neither of these things yet. Let the timer run out, then turn it on for round two.
Go into a mindless state of waiting.
Realize that the timer didn’t ding because you were fiddling with it too much in your mindless state of waiting. Turn it all the way up and then down again to make it ding and make sure it’s off. Realize that this isn’t actually proof that it’s off, but an audio cue that you’ve been trained to trust as a sign that hot toasters are off.
Put those crumpets on a plate. Spread butter on them. Earlier you threw out the old butter from your fridge that didn’t look so good, so this is a new fresh but frozen stick of butter. Watch it melt.
Sit down at the table and make sure the butter is sufficiently melted and spread.
Realize that this is the first crumpet you’ve eaten in four years since you studied abroad in England and that you’ve only ever eaten crumpets from Tesco, so you’re still really not sure how they’re actually supposed to taste and what differentiates a great crumpet from an average crumpet.
Due to the length of time between crumpet tastings, decide that you want to really enjoy these crumpets.
Look. Smell. Take a bite.
Write about what you just did.
Write about crumpets so much that the word starts to sound weird. Google “crumpet”. Wonder why you don’t just go to Wikipedia first instead of Google because that’s where you know you’re going anyway.
See the words “crumpets are an Anglo-Saxon invention.” Think about what an odd thing it is to refer to food as an invention. Learn that crumpets have been around since 1382. Truly a cultural culinary icon.
Stop thinking about the crumpets. That’s enough for one lunch hour.
Some realizations take a while to ferment in your mind.
There’s a scene in Sideways where one character says to another, “What was the bottle that got you into wine? What did it for you?”
I’ve been searching for that bottle. Searching for the glass that can change my life. The glass that can open my eyes to a new way of seeing the world, and make me exclaim, “My God, come quickly—I’m seeing stars.”
Because our eyes are affected by our smell and taste more than we realize. A brief taste of the right chocolate and you’ll never be the same person again. Whole realms of possibility open up and you see clearly what it means for the world to be better and for yourself to be better and then you can’t rest until you fully integrate that vision into your life.
In Liverpool, a cup of tea changed my life.
In Liverpool for a semester, studying music in the city of popular music. I am in a mental state of uprootedness, the way people are when they decide to study abroad. We become different people depending on what ground is beneath our feet and how many times we’ve walked over it before.
At 3:30 the morning after I arrive, I wake up absolutely hungry. I walk down to the security lodge near the front of the campus. Geoff and Malcom are there—the only two people I’ve met here so far. They welcomed me the day before and showed me to my room.
I ask them if there’s any place open to find breakfast or anything edible. Horrifyingly, they tell me they can’t think of any place nearby. They invite me inside and offer me a cup of tea.
When Malcom hands me the tea he offers me some biscuits. I take one. If I had been British, I would have known it’s absurd to only take one biscuit. He seems very surprised about it and gently explains I can take more.
We sit and talk, and I drink my tea. Like Proust’s cookie, I am etched with an impression of this moment and the taste of strong black tea. I sink into the taste, the richness of my first proper cup of tea, combined with this moment of welcome and care from new friends. This ritual of hospitality, a national drink of comfort offered to a weary traveler. As this drink consoles me I understand how it conquered Britain. Rule Brittania, rule camellia sinensis.
Understand, I was ripe for conquering. My senses were keen and tuned to the smallest details, open to every new experience. But taste tells us what life can be—it hints at how to live and points us to new possibilities in the mystery of earth and sea and vegetables.
Back to fermentation.
Now I’m in Sonoma. Searching, searching for that glass of wine that will open my eyes.
And as I wake up, with the morning sun getting slightly brighter every second, a realization dawns on me. The world looks different than it did yesterday. I can still taste the fifteen different wines I tried yesterday, each one distinct in my memory. There was no single moment of this experience that made a change in me. It needed to ferment. It needed a chorus of wines, dancing, bacchanal style in my perception to make me see.
Now, when I look at a bottle of wine my heart jumps and I think, “There is a symbol of what life can be.”
“Do you think music has the power to change people? Like you listen to a piece and go through some major change inside?”
Oshima nodded. “Sure, that can happen. We have an experience—like a chemical reaction—that transforms something inside us. When we examine ourselves later on, we discover that all the standards we’ve lived by have shot up another notch and the world’s opened up in unexpected ways. Yes, I’ve had that experience. Not often, but it has happened. It’s like falling in love.”
–Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
I see my own face staring back at me from the teacup. Am I Narcissus? The water is deep. The well is full. Shallowness is depth in this world, and depth is peace. On the bottom of the cup, small pieces of leaves form a pattern, not unlike the one we all saw on Pluto yesterday when New Horizons met the outer rim of our galactic tea cup.
Orbiting this tea cup in front of me is a tea strainer. The best thing to do with a tea strainer is stick your nose inside of it. Try it. Go on, I dare you. You may never come back. People have lost their whole selves smelling tea leaves. But seriously, you can’t beat that fragrance.
Often when I eat great food I have a transcendent experience that results in weird emotions like joyous anger and triumphant frustration. These emotions only exist in contradictions and opposites. You would think they would be impossible but they aren’t.
When I drink great tea, it makes me want to run out of whatever room I’m in and just stand out in the hallway for no reason. These are the things that love will make you do. It is unexplainable.
When you drink a black tea, it starts out dark. As you drink it, the color lightens as the depth shortens until it fades into the white of the cup. Boundaries fade and the tea becomes infused in the room and I know that’s crazy but tea is all about infusing something with something else, something beautiful and kind and calm.
The infusion goes deeper than the water. It infuses the mind, the body, the very moment and space of here and now, until all boundaries fade.
I no longer see my face in the cup and I wonder if I have faded too. If I have been infused, or something has been infused in me.
The above are excerpts from Holy Dinner Plates, an upcoming chapbook about radishes, farmers’ markets, and watering the grass beneath you. To learn more, visit kevinmcgillivray.net/holy-dinner-plates or sign up for Kevin’s newsletter at tinyletter.com/kmcgillivray.
Kevin McGillivray is a web developer, teacher, and food explorer. He writes about creativity, mindfulness, code, community, and tea, and lives in Green Bay, WI with his wife, Alex, and their cat Apollo Philip. He is also the co-founder of Sandcastle, a tiny web design studio. Find him online at twitter.com/kev_mcg or kevinmcgillivray.net.