Little things bother me.

I am troubled, for example, by the tags on Lipton tea bags. They’re flimsy and problematic. The design is ingenious enough. The tab is part of the envelope in which each tea bag nestles. In this respect, Lipton has it all over most brands, whose tea bags lie naked in the box. The envelope is perforated so that the user can detach the part that serves as the tag, but the envelope is made of such thin paper that the staple doesn’t grip the string very well, and as often as not the tag slips off. And that means that the whole string often winds up in the cup when the water is poured.

Most other brands — Wegmans and Twinnings, for instance — while eschewing the envelope, make the tags out of sturdier stuff.

It has occurred to me to call Lipton’s 800 number about this, but I had such an unsatisfying experience about a decade ago when I called Nabisco to complain about the way graham crackers are wrapped that I don’t have the heart to try it again.

There are two reasons why I don’t just drink another brand of tea. One is that Lipton tea is the only kind I like — at least, as compared to other ones that I have tried. Some people (you know who you are) sniff at this, implying that there is something pedestrian about Lipton and, therefore, about me, but that doesn’t move me. I have, to borrow a phrase from Jefferson Davis, “the pride of having no pride.”

The second reason I don’t switch brands is loyalty — not so much to the brand as to the salesman. When I was a kid, I was a devoted fan of Arthur Godfrey, who was a radio and television mogul back in the Bronze Age. Lipton was one of his sponsors and probably the one the public most associated with him.  He pitched the tea and Lipton’s packaged soup. In those days before the highly produced commercials we see now, the host of a show often was the one who sold the products. Godfrey used to kid the sponsors; he might have been the first one who dared to do it. When he did his spiel for Lipton’s chicken soup, he used to assure the audience that a chicken had at least walked through the concoction.

Godfrey was troublesome. He was talented and bold as a showman, but he also was kind of full of himself, and many people my age and older might remember him best for having fired Julius La Rosa and several other regular members of his variety show cast — without warning, on live television.

Nobody’s perfect. I made a commitment to Arthur Godfrey that I would drink Lipton tea and no other, and I have been more loyal to him than he was to Julie La Rosa.

Besides my one-sided deal with Godfrey, I might as well mention that I’m not happy when I don’t find a prominent portrait of Sir Thomas Lipton on the box of tea. Lipton, who founded the brand, was one of the great self-made businessmen of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. I identify with him because he was a grocer, as were my father and grandfather. Of course, we had one store and Lipton eventually had about 300.

When Lipton got into the tea trade, he broke the established wholesaling patterns so that he could sell the product at low prices to the working poor. Lipton tea boxes used to feature a large picture of Thomas Lipton with a tea cup in his hand and a yachting cap on his head – an image that has been relegated to a tiny logo. Lipton was a yachting enthusiast and tried five times with five different yachts to win the Americas Cup. What he finally won was a special trophy honoring him as the “best of all losers.”

Lipton also did a lot to assist medical volunteers in Europe during World War I, including putting his yachts at the disposal of organizations transporting medical personnel and supplies and traveling himself to Serbia to show his support for doctors, nurses, and soldiers at the height of a typhus epidemic. Twinnings? I don’t think so.


Down the hatch

September 9, 2009

Fratelli Branca, Milan

Fratelli Branca, Milan

Something I just read reminded me of the only remedy my paternal grandmother swore by: Fernet-Branca. If you’ve never tasted it, you don’t know what you’re missing — and I say that without prejudice one way or the other.

Fernet is a liquer concocted of a couple of dozen herbs and spices and heavily laced with alcohol. There is more than one brand, but Fernet Branca — distilled by the Fratelli Branca in Milan — is the only one most people know.

Well, actually, I’m not sure most people know about Fernet at all, but to the extent that some people do, most of them know Fernet-Branca. I haven’t had Fernet in many years, but even when my memory of it was fresher I’m not sure I could have described the taste. The website calls it “a cross between medicine, crushed plants and bitter mud,” but I don’t think that does it justice.

Fratelli Branca, Milan

Fratelli Branca, Milan

As I implied, I was introduced to Fernet-Branca by Teresina Giordano Paolino, my grandmother, who kept it on hand to cure ailments of the stomach. When I was a kid, the combination of free range in our grocery store and my grandmother’s determination to kill me with food resulted in frequent attacks such as George Ade used to call “the stomach-ache.” If she got wind of such a calamity, Grandma would summon me to her kitchen — we had two, like all good Italians — and force me to swallow a shot glass full of Fernet-Branca. I say “force me.” That was only at first. After a while, I developed a taste for it — my first “acquired taste,” I suppose. It hits the belly like a shotgun blast — garlic, aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, galanga, zedoary, and heaven knows what else simultaneously colliding with gastric acid. And the alcohol — oh, my. Depending on where one buys it, the alcohol content of Fernet-Branca can exceed 40 percent. It should come as no surprise that the firewater works — every time.

Fratelli Branca, Milan

Fratelli Branca, Milan

When Pat and I were on our honeymoon in Bermuda, my stomach started barking after a few days of high living. I was complaining to Cappy, the hotel bartender, when I spied a Fernet-Branca label among the bottles behind him. It was like spotting an old friend in a crowd. I got Cappy to pour me a shot, although he was convinced it would make me sicker, but nothing doing — I was ready to resume the feast in about five minutes.

From what I’ve read on the Internet, Fernet-Branca, which has been around since 1845, is very trendy these days, particularly in Argentina, where many folks like it mixed with cola. In fact, it’s the subject of a song, “Fernet Cola,” by the rock group Vilma Palma.

There’s a Chicago Tribune story about the Argentine connection at this link: