Let Us Now Praise Obscure Teas, Verbena Edition

I used to believe that tea should be tea. How did I go from dissing herbal tea to craving this strange murk?

I used to talk a lot of trash about herbal tea. I mean, my inheritance from my grandfather included a jar of aged pu-erh, so you can understand my bias for tea that’s made from tea. I don’t even know that much about tea, but I did know just enough to be dangerous and dismissive.

That prejudice started a long, slow crackup, though, when I discovered mint tea, which drew me in with the way it tastes cool and feels hot. But today I found myself running around town looking for a good lemon verbena. Whole leaf, unblended, please, if you’ve got it. I blame the French.

My friend Clark and I were at the end of a fantastic dinner a few weeks ago, a fancied-up pot-au-feu as refined and as Gallic as you can imagine, with the servers to match. They were unfailingly polite, but perhaps a little intimidating in their professionalism, their sharp suits and sharp features. I was, I admit, a little self-conscious in my outlet-store sweater. But Clark, wearing a black t-shirt, was utterly unfazed, possessed of the kind of confidence that only comes to natural, world-class charmers.

It was dessert time. Coffee? Tea?

“Do you have ver-venn?” Clark asked, softening his r until it was barely perceptible. The server gave a knowing smile and headed off.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Verbena. They like it when you order verbena. It means you’re in the club.”

It came, sturdy leaves in a porcelain pot. It poured out a rich yellow and tasted like a swirling, murky green, like things that hang around a forest floor. I don’t blame you if that doesn’t sound very appealing, but then the flavor changed, hinting at lemon and leaves. “Excuse me!” I called back to the server. “I’ll have a vuhrrrven too,” I said, clumsily.

It was a poor interview, and I don’t think it won me entry into the club. I got no knowing smile. But the verbena was so odd, so bright and so dim, so weirdly warming that my head felt a little lighter and my self-consciousness floated away. I sat back, crossing my legs to reveal socks that didn’t quite match my pants, and didn’t even mind that much when the maître d’ came to introduce himself, handing Clark his business card and me nothing. If anything was going to be dismissed that night, it wasn’t the stuff in the cup.

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