stewed tea

Perusing early uses of “stew”, I noticed that “stewed tea” warranted its own OED notes. It made perfect sense: it’s the only case in which “stewed” reliably means “overcooked”, unless, of course, you prefer your dried fruits unrehydrated in any way or know someone inevitably prone to overcooking all foods.

The earliest use of “stewed tea” the dictionary has is from 1908. The phrase appears in Arnold Bennett’s novel, Old Wives’ Tale. Two new guests arrive at a hotel, avidly watched by the assembled guests, gathered for afternoon tea: “They vanished quietly upstairs in convoy of the manager’s wife, and they did not re-appear for the lounge tea, which in any case would have been undrinkably stewed.”

Rudyard Kipling uses the phrase twice in his 1926 collection of short stories, Debits and Credits, in “The Wish House” and “A Friend of the Family”. (The stories were written between 1923 and 1925.) In both cases, it is part of a larger repast, whether “buttered toast, currant bread, stewed tea, bitter as leather, some home-preserved pears, and a cold boiled pig’s tail to help down the muffins” in the first case, or “stewed tea with your meat four times a day”, as in the second.

A few intriguing snippets from Google Books pushes the earliest date of its use further back, if those dates of publication are correct. In 1905, a local education authority in Great Britain advised that “If you take this stewed tea it will prevent you from getting the proper goodness out of your food.” It continues on to recommend that tea being drunk promptly after brewing. In 1904, Vol. 8 of The Queen Cookery Books uses it, although the available excerpt is not enough to provide anything more than a description of what stewed tea is.

In any event, “stewed tea”, as a phrase, first shows up in print at the beginning of the twentieth century, leaving me wondering about the earlier history of words used to describe over-steeped tea. Quickly checking Google Books again: “Over brewed tea” goes back at least to 1884. “Over steeped tea”, a rarer phrase, at least to 1915. And before 1884?

algae stew

There’s nothing like algae stew for evoking “desperate-but-cozy”. Philip Reeve uses it in Predator’s Gold, part of the Hungry Cities quartet of post-apocalyptic young adult steampunk.

She sat out the storm in his kitchen, while the Aakiuqs fed her algae stew and told her about other storms, far worse than this, which dear old Anchorage had come through quite unscathed. (p. 115)

The mobile cities of this world have limited opportunities for crop growth; to survive, they must bring their sustenance-production with them in the form of algae farms, in at least one case. (p. 108)

Metaphorically, “algae stew” is a phrase often used to describe a dense morass of algae suspended in water, i.e. eutrophic waters. As a result, it is a favorite dish for at least a couple of anthropomorphic sea creatures. (See Stella the Starfish and Pagoo, the story of a hermit crab by H.C. Holling.)

Algae generally is a favorite ingredient of grim visions of the future of the world and space travel. (This is a whole topic in its own right.) Stew is a favorite of all sorts of genres. Between them, I’m surprised there aren’t more algae stews out there. Perhaps they’re hidden in all those space travel visions of ambiguously “synthesized” food. The only other specific instance of science fictional algae stew I’ve wandered across, other than the Hungry Cities one, may be in the Star Wars universe: according to at least one source, it’s a specialty of Yoda, a watery dish from a swampy planet.

See also “plankton chowder” in Blish and Knight’s A Torrent of Face. (Encountered via Westfahl’s “For Tomorrow We Dine” in Foods of the Gods.)

*© S. Worthen 2009