I must have looked like I needed help. Perhaps, I did; most of us usually do. We’d been out walking the hills of County Waterford through the more than mist but less than rain and, perhaps, looked a bit worse for the wear. So when she looked at me kindly and said, “Sit down, while I make you a nice cup of tea.” I sort of shook my head to politely say no. You know that apologetic head shake you give when it sounds nice, but you don’t want to be any trouble? That was the one I used, which she promptly ignored. A few minutes later she returned, a cup of hot Irish Breakfast tea in hand, with lemon and honey. “Take this,” she said, “for the comfort that’s in it.” So, with a nod to the kindness of strangers, many years ago on a foggy day in Ireland, won’t you join me now as we stand and make the Hot Irish Toddy.
I’d love to give you a proper provenance on this drink, but I don’t have one. This is one of those I have just sort of always known. When I was younger, my grandma would make homemade cough syrup with honey, lemon, and, if the sickness warranted it, a small amount of whiskey. It was simple, but effective. To this day, when I have a cough that I can’t shake, this home remedy seems to do the trick when nothing else helps. My whole life I have kept a bottle in the cupboard and one evening when I was out of honey I sweetened my tea with it and I have never looked back.
Of course, the trick to a good hot toddy is to make sure it is not hot. A warm toddy is where you want to be. Too much heat tends to bring out the harsh side of whatever alcohol you choose, so take your time and have little patience. That said, we still need some boiling water to get things started, so put the kettle on. I generally make an entire pot at once, but I’ll cut it down to a single serving today. While the kettle comes to a boil, grab your teapot and add one ounce of Irish whiskey, I chose Jameson; and one heaping teaspoon, or a teabag, of Irish Breakfast Tea. To that add 4 ounces of boiling water and cover to steep for 4 minutes while listening to Luke Kelly singing, “The Rare Old Times“. When your tea and whiskey has steeped, add 1/2 an ounce of honey and 1/4 ounce of fresh squeezed lemon juice and stir before straining into a warmed porcelain teacup. Garnish with a thin lemon wheel, I chose a dehydrated one, but you can be the best judge of what works for you.
Of course, this is wonderful. Mine is the perfect temperature, for me; you should make sure yours suits you. Same goes for the honey and lemon. If you need it a bit sweeter, add some honey. Unlike most recipes where we are looking for a particular balance, this one has much more flexibility. At the end of the day, this is just a nice cup of tea with honey, lemon and don’t forget the whiskey. Irish whiskey has a bit of a leaner, sweeter character, so it works perfectly here, especially since I let things cool down a bit to take that hard edge off the alcohol. This drink has everything you need to brighten up a grey St. Patrick’s Day or any other day, including a healthy dose of nostalgia.
It is the right kind of day for a warm bit of comfort in a cup. A foggy morning that shifted into a grey day, with a bit of chill still in the air. I am reminded of that cup of tea nearly twenty years on now and how it always makes me smile. “Take this for the comfort that’s in it.” That phrase always stuck with me. I had never heard it put that way, but it made sense immediately. I’d see it again years later in Frank MCourt’s story of his childhood in Limerick, Angela’s Ashes. I remember reading about conditions that seemed unimaginable to me. The things he saw and experienced taking care of his mother and brother in those slums shook me. How the weight of the choices he had to make as a child would bend him all of his life as he worked to both escape and embrace the troubles of his unusual upbringing. The unsettling push and pull of past trauma that so many live with.
I see now that, for him, that was just his childhood. Sure there were hardships but those were tempered by moments of joy and looking back, we mostly try to remember the joy. Since we don’t know anything different most of us learn to adapt to the world we live in. So, it is fair to say he had a “normal” childhood, his normal was just different from other folks. My grandfather used to say, “It’s amazing, what you can get used to,” he’d then give it a couple of beats before he finished, “when you have to.” Frank had to get used to a normal that I can’t imagine, but maybe that is where his strength came from. Perhaps it was in those slums, watching the center of his world slip away that he found the inspiration to escape and the voice to share his story with the rest of the world. Who can say whether it was for better or worse? I certainly can’t, after all that is his story.
Whether we indulge in a bit of drink, a draw on a cigarette, a warm embrace or the nostalgia of what was and might have been, we often do it “for the comfort that is in it.” I like the sound of that. The acknowledgement of why we are doing things. I had not thought of my tea that way before, I just wanted something warm to drink. Honestly, I had not given my tea much thought at all. On reflection though, it is more than just a hot drink. It is the cup in your hands, warming them, the steam rising. It is the aroma, something slightly spicy and exotic on the nose, making your mouth water in antici…pation. It is the taste, that balance of sweet and tart, the acidic feel of hot tea on the palate; the warmth that spreads through your body as it goes down. It is also the nostalgia; memories of watching the sea out a window with a cup in hand as the storm raged; of sitting across from a long departed friend sharing a last cup to stave of the dying of the light. Our lives are like that cup of tea, made up of so much more than what you can see from the outside. A collection of fleeting moments, good and bad, made all the more precious by bitter days that balance sweeter times. Like the kind woman once said, take this and cherish it, “for the comfort that is in it,” and stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.