LAPSANG SOUCHONG TEA:
Nectar for the Gods Who Dwell Atop Olympus
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
We all have our eccentricities. My tastes include peanut butter and onion sandwiches, ala Ernest Hemingway, pinto beans scorched to perfection over a smoldering campfire, chili hot enough to melt the enamel off one’s molars and a peculiar smoky flavored Chinese tea called lapsang souchong.
It all began many years ago with a friend nicknamed Derf, which is Fred spelled backwards. Derf did not care for the name Fred and preferred to go by his middle name Vincent. Be that as it may, all of us at our remote Navaho boarding school in the New Mexico desert called him Derf, which seemed okay by him.
Derf was an interesting character, a B-26 pilot who had flown missions over North Africa and Europe during World War II and had flown old DC-3’s around South America after the war, delivering freight to out of the way places. While working on a road crew spreading asphalt in the California desert, he saw a nearby elementary school, decided that anything would be better than what he was doing, and applied to become a teacher. He spent a number of years teaching on a naval base in Puerto Rico.
Midway in his career, he decided to take a year off and wander around Spain. That wanderlust having been temporarily sated, he signed on with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and showed up one January day at Tohatchi Boarding School, about 26 miles up the highway from Gallup, New Mexico.
It was not to last. His love of faraway places kicked in once again in the spring, and he departed to teach English as a Second language in Mexico City before returning to his earlier position in Puerto Rico. Having no means of transporting his gear on the long bus ride south, he passed nearly everything on to me. Among the array of items was a small tin of lapsang souchong tea. I became an immediate addict.
Lapsang souchong is produced only in two Chinese provinces, Fujan and Taiwan. Basically, it consists of black tea leaves slowly smoked over a smoldering fire kindled from pine logs. A cup of lapsang soughong has all the fragrance and irresistible allure for me of my grandfather’s country smoked hams moldering away in his smoke house. Few things in life are as satisfying.
There are conflicting stories about lapsang souchong’s origins. One delightful legend is that its smoky flavor originated when bandits burned down the shed where a Chinese tea farmer had stored his harvest. Rather than lose his entire crop, he offered it to a Dutch tea merchant, who loved it and ordered more. Subsequently, it became the favored tea of British royalty.
I have brewed up a mug of lapsang souchong at the end of many a trek through mountains, deserts, forests and swamps, including Ohio’s Mohican-Memorial State Forest, Michigan’s North Manitou Island, the rugged mountain fastnesses of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, the swamplands of Florida and state and national parks and wilderness areas in West Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota and Kentucky. I have shared a pot of lapsang souchong at various times with the giants of the earth, including my late great friend the poet Jim Tipton, who gave it his stamp of approval.
In my experience, most men do approve of its robust smoky flavor. Most women seem to despise it. My sister and my niece refer to it as creosote tea. A friend’s wife refers to it as ashtray tea. A former student once told me, “I tried some of that with my girlfriend this weekend, and she hated it.”
Not all men share my esteem for it, though. A fellow ranger who was my roommate at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial out on Lake Erie could not bear its fragrance and would leave the room whenever I had a mugful. After returning to my Park Service duty station at Fort Raleigh, North Carolina following a hurricane evacuation, one of the ladies working at the counter in the visitor center observed, “I can tell that Lorin is back because I smell that funky tea.”
A good friend and backpacking companion shared a cup of with his soon to be ex-wife and warned, “Swinehart says that all women hate Lapsang souchong tea.”
She responded, “The next time I see Swinehart, I’m going to smack him.”
I have always wondered if our penchant for lapsang souchong contributed to their subsequent divorce.
Only our daughter, Hope Malaika, a young woman of discerning tastes and aptitudes, has grown to appreciate its merits. One summer, while serving as a ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, Hope and one of her friends joined me on a trek up a 10,000 foot trail in the Rockies. Once we arrived at our destination, a ranger patrol cabin, I fired up my backpacker stove and brewed a pot of lapsang souchong. She was so impressed that she ordered her own supply as soon as she returned to the East. Every afternoon in her office she now insists upon a “lapsang moment”.
As I pen these lines, I am enjoying my daily cup of good, strong lapsang. Brings back memories of simple good times spent around wilderness campfires, of Navaho friends sharing stories of shape shifters, skin changers, the fearsome Chi’indi who haunts abandoned hogans, evenings serenaded by owl-song and coyote-song and the wind among high country evergreens.
I find it somehow reassuring that a few exceptional persons share my passion for what’s good.