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A Little Slurp of Heaven 

You can become a coffee man in five years. It takes a lifetime to make a tea person.

Wednesday, Mar 5 2003
"What is this filth?"

That's what Helen Gustafson, tea buyer for Chez Panisse, suggests you ask the waiter if you're served tea in a bag at a fine restaurant. She is adamantly, unabashedly opposed to tea bags. The only kind she'll drink is a ginger lemon from a company she'd rather not mention. "They use too much corn syrup," she explains. And she doesn't approve of tea cozies.

Gustafson is not only a tea aficionado. She also collects aprons, salt and pepper shakers, teacups and teapots (of course), and handkerchiefs. She's just published a book about the latter. It's called, somewhat painfully, Hanky Panky: An Intimate History of the Handkerchief. But before you accuse her of being the queen of twee, know that Helen Gustafson is no milquetoast. The woman has opinions, and she is not afraid to express them.

On a particular kind of tea that Chez Panisse has on its menu: "Hate, hate, hate it!"

On her competition: "You can become a coffee man in five years. It takes a lifetime to make a tea person."

On the East Coast-West Coast tea industry rivalry: "The big boys are on the East Coast. The brains are out here."

On herself: "I like a good time."

In other words, Gustafson may be an admirer of what she calls "foo-foo things," but she is not a foo-foo person.

How does one become tea buyer at Chez Panisse, the legendary Berkeley restaurant? First you spend your childhood drinking perfectly brewed Red Rose with your mother and grandmother in a Minnesota sunroom (yes, they have sun in Minnesota). Then you come to Berkeley and decide, in 1969, to swap your academic job (decidedly uncool in 1969 Berkeley) for one with the folks next door at the Cheese Board (decidedly cool in 1969 Berkeley -- and still so today). You make the logical switch to restaurant hostessing, ending up felicitously at Chez Panisse a few weeks after it opens, in 1971, back when "the place was so crazy, you could do anything." You note that this fabulous restaurant uses an Earl Grey made with cheap lavender, and Alice Waters tells you, "Do something about it." Finally, when hostessing becomes too much work, you keep buying teas -- and never stop. Of course.

The job isn't as strenuous as hostessing, where you're on your feet all day and have to be pleasant even to the biggest jerks, but it's not quite as cushy as one might imagine. Gustafson trains every Chez Panisse employee in the art and science of fine tea-making. Though she "used to have to fight" to get people interested, now she hosts a handful of folks in her weekly classes at the restaurant, which pays for its employees to be there. She supervises the buying and care of all tea accouterments, not to mention the buying, care, preparation, and serving of all tea (aided by the recent addition of an assistant, Alice Cravens). No doubt she runs a tight ship: Her interactions with her co-workers prove it. As we sit for afternoon tea at Chez Panisse, for example, she asks a waiter to bring us a pot of Golden Needle, a "prized black tea harvest [sic] from the Yunnan Province of China," as the menu describes it. But when the pot arrives, it isn't quite right, so Gustafson calls the waiter back for a detailed negotiation about exactly how many leaves should go in. She may look, with her bright blue eyes and scarf thrown jauntily over her shoulders, like a pleasant, elegant older lady (she's in her 70s), but when it comes to tea, she's a tiger.

Still, Gustafson doesn't deny that she's got a nice gig. "Chez Panisse is a good stage," she says. She's been able to pursue her "main passion" and make a living at it. Many women of her generation were interested in tea and other comforts, but, she explains, "I just did something professional with it."

The handkerchiefs are another story. Gustafson doesn't claim to be an expert on the decorative arts; she's simply been collecting kerchiefs since she was 10, and she's got lots of good stories, and she's written three books already, so why not write one about this? We admit that when we first saw the press release for Hanky Panky, it reminded us of all those silly volumes published by Chronicle Books (where we used to work) -- you know, like Tiara. But then we got a copy and read it. And you know what? It's funny (she titles one chapter "Blow and Show") and sharp (she covers everything from Jewish wedding dances to waving farewell with a hankie to magicians' "silks"). She even parses the politics of the squares in the back pockets of gay men and lesbians.

Granted, it's a specialized interest. We'd never actually buy the book -- and it seems the publisher, Ten Speed Press, doesn't expect many people to do so, either: The print run is a mere 6,000 copies. Even so, there's clearly a market. Victoria magazine -- to which Gustafson refers, with a wave of her hand, as "that foo-foo" -- came to her house this past weekend to photograph her handkerchief collection. Unlikely as it seems, the magazine (subtitle: "Romantic Living, Inspiring Women") has a circulation of about 950,000, a little higher than that of The New Yorker.

It pains Gustafson that what she loves has a reputation for "Martha Stewart foolishness." She knows how it looks: "It seems so lightweight." Yet tea and handkerchiefs and all the rest remind her of her childhood, of the sense of security she felt then, when her mother and grandmother treated her like an equal in that sunroom. "This is what makes me happy," she declares with a shrug.

Nowadays Gustafson gives occasional winter tea parties at her home about a mile from Chez Panisse, filled, she expects, with "the lively exchange of ideas" -- and lots of slurping (she insists it promotes aeration). A colorful mix of guests attends: One recent gathering included her editor and his wife, a writer, a chef, and a fellow tea expert, and some have featured her seamstress, an artist, a philosopher, and a doctor. She serves sweet and savory dishes (never the "boring standards"), but no coffee -- she used to drink the stuff, but now, she says, "It just doesn't taste good to me anymore." Her husband plays golf while she entertains.

And she'd never dream of retiring. When asked about it, she pulls a colorful handkerchief out of the sleeve of her blouse and blots her face, as if we've made her nervous just by bringing the subject up. "No, no," she says. "I have a sweet deal here."

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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