November Subscription Box, a review

November Subscription Box, a review

I recently subscribed to a monthly subscription box from The Tea Spot. November was the first ever delivery as the company just started the program, so I got in right at the very start. I tried the teas in order of least likely to ever buy, saving my obvious favorite for last. The teas and blends were put together to celebrate the time of year and holiday season. These are my thoughts.This is a long read as there were five teas in the box.

Candied Chestnut :: On opening the pouch I inhaled deeply, caught my breath and repeated, not knowing what to expect. Then I sniffed a little. First impression: definitely, this has a nut fragrance and flavor to it. I’m not a fan of nuts in general, never eat whole almonds, and am allergic to cashews. I absolutely loathe peanut butter. The name alone nearly earned it negative marks from the start. The scent has an earthy, slightly smoked and almost woody note to it. I imagined it smelled exactly as a freshly roasted chestnut would, or should, seeing as they can only be opened by being put to high heat. (The line in the carol isn’t fibbing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” And now the song is now an earworm in your head.)

Now, on to the flavor. The foundation in this is a white tea, sweetened with Jasmine petals. Plain white tea is prob’ly my least preferred of all tea options. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the overall steeped liqueur in my mug after reading the label, because Americans drink tea and coffee in big 16oz (0.5L) mugs, not little porcelain cups, unless it’s a special occasion. My initial thoug)ht was, “Okay, bland with flowers. And it’s supposed to be a nut tea? If they say so.”

I was pleasantly pleased, much to my surprise! The chestnut flavor was present enough to say, “Hello friend. I’ve just come from the open fire,” but not so much it made this anti-nut person gag, which I was half expecting to happen. Seriously. I always sweeten my tea so I tried a few unsweetened sips first, letting the flavors sit on my tongue. The earthy, bitter flavor definitely came through. If dirt had a flavor I thought this might be it. But wait. I added a little sweetener, a mix of stevia and Splenda. And the dirty bitterness disappeared, leaving behind what would be a tea for nut, and outdoors lovers would want. Thinking on it now if anything but white tea were used in this blend the flavor would have been awful, being overpowered by the base notes of the tea itself. I will finish the pouch in the shipment, but it’s highly unlikely I would buy more for my personal tea stash.

Pumpkin Spice Chai :: I put aside my feelings for pumpkin, and my opinions of the basic white girl fad of pumpkin spice, to give this a try. The first smells were the delicious sweetness of the spices. I like cinnamon, allspice and cloves in small doses, and preferably sweetened ones, like cookies. I was expecting to be bowled over with cinnamon and ginger, and it didn’t happen. A little is a good thing; what usually happens is that the makers think there needs to be a lot. Authentic chai can be very heavy on ginger and peppercorns, so much so it can burn the tastebuds and stomach. These were barely detectable by smell. As for the pumpkin itself I had to take several deep inhalations to be convinced there was actually pumpkin in there. I was beginning to think this wouldn’t be so bad. Authentic, original Chai is always made with a black tea base and the seasonings, flavors and spices are added according to one’s personal tastes, or health needs. Chai has long been considered medicinal in the regions where it originated.

I made my mug and again tried it unsweetened. It you like unsweetened tea, this would have been very good as it stood. I could not taste pumpkin at all in these first sips. I added my sweetener blend and the pumpkin started to come through. I really enjoyed this tea. It wasn’t too heavy on any of the added flavors, balancing each just right. I think it would be altogether different and delicious with a hot milk of your choice added. You may want to steep it longer or use more tea to make it stronger before making it as a chai latte, otherwise you might taste only milk.

Clouds and Mist :: The name alone evokes images of grand mountains of Asian mystique, doesn’t it? I’ve only recently begun drinking quality green tea so my experience with the different varietals has been limited. If you’ve been drinking boxed, bagged, chopped green tea in bags from the grocery store (Lipton and Bigelow come to mind) — stop, now. Please. Seriously, just stop. You do not know what you’ve been missing. I opened this tea and took in a deep breath. And let out a contented sigh, and breathed in some more, again, and again. Green teas are not all the same. The fragrance of this one brought images of dewy, spring mornings to mind. It was light and crisp, and not too vegetal-ish, and definitely not of fresh cut grass. Because I’m not alone in thinking green tea looks, smells and tastes of fresh cut grass, am I.

The flavor was just as my nose detected, and was expecting. The liqueur was a golden sage, and if steeped longer turned more golden. You really only need a minute or two for your first brew. The leaves should sink if the water is hot enough, and will float if not. I put enough leaves in my steeping basket to make my mugful. I will drink green tea unsweetened, and it’s about the only kind, too. After a few swallows I added just a hint of sweetener and I enjoyed it that way as well. Now, here’s the best part. I left my basket with brewed leaves resting on a wide mouth pint Mason canning jar. I came back to my leaves four more times, adding one additional minute to each subsequent steep. The fifth mug was definitely the last and the leaves were spent. Even in boiling water they were starting to float, and gave little color and modest flavor. A sixth mug would have been a waste of water and time. I will definitely be buying this again in the future.

Gingerbread Cookie :: If you grew up in the US you know what these spicy sweet treats are. Are they enjoyed around Europe, and globally as well? I don’t know. If anyone knows, please comment. The first smells make me hungry, and reminded me of Christmas baking. There are bits of dried ginger in the blend, up to 1cm square, so they’re not miniscule. I was a little worried this would be a proper ginger tea, best for upset stomachs. The cinnamon scent was stronger here than in the Chai. The base tea is rooibos, also called Red Bush. It’s not a true tea, in that the plant is not in the same taxonomy genus Cemellia sinensis. It comes from a bush originating in South Africa (Aspalathus linearis), and is naturally caffeine free, and has a lightly sweet and vanilla flavor. The dried leaves are, indeed, a shade of rusty red. What makes it tea is that the leaves are picked and dried, then steeped in boiling water to extract the flavor. Rooibos has several proven health benefits. The leaves are smaller than traditional tea, and crush easily. Expect particulates in the bottom of your cup, mug, or pot. This can be eliminated by doing a 10 second rinse. That’s a lesson for another day. I didn’t want to rinse this tea anyway because of the added cinnamon, in case it would wash it away.

Now that I’ve dropped some knowledge on you, let’s taste this, shall we? The boiling water really opened the ginger and began to smell quite strong. I was more worried about this being an upset stomach tea. I needn’t have worried after all. Yes, the ginger and cinnamon were stronger than the Chai, but not enough to burn. The flavors danced on my tongue. It tried it both unsweetened and sweetened. It is definitely better as a sweet tea, since it is supposed to taste like a cookie. I really enjoyed this, again, to my surprise. Much like the cookies themselves, it’s not for every day. This would be a blend I would keep on hand in small quantities to share with an adventurous tea loving friend.

Keemun :: This one I saved for last. I love black tea. I resisted opening this one until I was ready to make it because I didn’t want it to taint my impressions of the others, because I knew it would have. If I could have buried my whole face in this tea, I would have. Black tea has a richness to it that does not compare to any of the lighter teas. The same plant produces them all, but the deep oxidation… Right, back to the task. Black tea, like green, has familiar fragrances compared to other black varietals, so they smell the same, and yet don’t . I’m having a hard time describing it. It was rich and deep, malty, sweet, with hints of natural vanilla, and robust.

I had to wait to make this cuppa because black tea has the highest caffeine content of them all. Drunk too late in the day and the caffeine would keep me awake. It seems I’m getting more caffeine sensitive the older I get. Black tea has its best flavor if steeped with freshly boiled water. Steeped too long and it gets very strong, very. I generally go with 5 minutes for drinking it hot. For iced tea I’ll steep 15-20 minutes, and dilute with cold water and ice just before serving. Similar to green tea, a black tea tastes much like it smells. This had a robust, malty, sweetness. Unsweetened black tea can have a bitter aftertaste. I like my black teas sweet. Keemun would be delicious in the summer, iced with orange slices added to the glass or pitcher.

FCC Disclosure: This review was unsolicited, and the reviewer was unpaid by the brand and products featured.

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Learn something about yourself: Volunteer

This week a world renown “radically open art competition” opened for its 7th year in my hometown. This isn’t going to be a critique on art, the art on display or the competition. I know what I like, what draws my eye and spurs my senses and invokes a reaction — good and/or bad. I don’t know enough about art to try critique it; but be highly critical, oh yes. This is about something else entirely.

Over the last months and year I have re-learned something about myself: I like to volunteer. I like to be a Volunteer.  ArtPrize needs hundreds of volunteers. This is also the time of year my body decides it wants to start hibernation mode with the shorter daylight hours and cooler temperatures. I signed up because I think volunteering is fun (yes, really!) and to force myself to get up, moving and out of the house for something I can’t put off.  I worked three 3-hour shifts this week with several more planned over the next two weeks.

One of the better parts of volunteering for a large-scale event like this is there are many different areas in which to get involved.  This also means it provides a lot of opportunities to people watch, and even talk to some of the people you see.

Yesterday I had the privilege of hosting a drop-in art studio — open to all ages, not just children — in a building which had been a display venue the last six years. This year it, and the most popular outdoor space did not have any art entries — at all. There was a man working as a greeter and disability awareness advocate in the same lobby. During a lull for both of us he wheeled himself over to introduce himself. He was David.  We began talking about ArtPrize, and some of the comments he had been getting from people.  He spoke with much passion about how disappointed he (and many others) were that there wasn’t art in this building, in the outdoor space next door, or in the river — all of which have had something on display all 6 years prior. He was clearly irritated at this oversight, or lack of participation and the disappointment it was creating. And the confusion!  Oh, the confusion!

I don’t recall exactly what I said to him. I did mention I was glad there wasn’t anything outdoors next door as it was one of the only places people would come to see any art and not go explore many other venues at all. I told him I had overheard someone, who I presumed worked in the building, say that a renovation project was planned, and said I guessed the building owners didn’t want to have construction dust and debris become a problem for any of the art or artists. We parted shortly after this brief chat and I didn’t give our conversation another thought.

David came back over to me just before he was set to leave. I thought he was going to say a friendly good-bye and be on his way. He did not.  He apologized. Apologized! I was instantly confused, as he had not offended me, or been impolite or rude in any way.  He wanted be make sure things were “okay between us” before he left. In my stunned disbelief I don’t remember how he put it, but it was to the effect of being sorry about his opinion he expressed earlier.

It wasn’t necessary to apologize for speaking his opinion, and I told him so. Going on, I said that I was not offended in any way.

He has a right to his opinion, and people may not always agree with it, but that’s what makes it an opinion.  I am not easily offended when someone shares their opinion.  What does that say of me, and more importantly, of so many others he has interacted with?

Indeed, what does that say of our society when one man can not safely express his thoughts and feelings without fear of backlash or retaliation? I told David I try to avoid controversial debate, in social media in particular, as it usually devolves into someone calling others names. I’m sorry but you’ve completely invalidated your entire argument as soon as the middle school version of you stepped out and called me Stupid. Actually, I’m not sorry.  If that’s the only and final argument you have to a debate then I know I’ve won.

Carry on, David, with your opinions.  Let’s hope we can relearn civil discourse before it’s too late.

An Open Letter

To Whom it may concern,

This is an open letter in regards to the recent hubbub about Miley Cyrus.

Don’t worry, I won’t tell you to calm down. I saw clips of the VMA performance, it was enough to recognize it wasn’t very appropriate for family viewing. This is also not an invitation to start spewing venom about her morals, lack of them or her sudden change in “character.”

First off, Miley, you are welcome to eat dinner or stay in my home any time. Advance notice is preferred so I can clean off the dining table and fix something besides sloppy joes. Unless, of course, you want sloppy joes. I don’t do artisan baked goods, so ordinary buns from Meijer will have to do. I do make a mean salsa, and a pretty good iced tea.

Other than the advanced notice there are a couple of other things – rules, actually – you need to follow. One: no cussing in my house, of any kind – ever. I think it makes people look really, really stupid, and you’re not stupid. Two: if you come to stay you gotta come to to church with us on Sunday. Three: church means appropriate clothes. They don’t have to be fancy, or dressy, or include a hat. They must properly cover the parts Eve was suddenly ashamed to have exposed. Four: no smoking in the house. You can stand outside in the cold, wind, rain or whatever elements nature provides like i make everyone else do. Five: you may not call me by my first name, not even in the genteel way southerners so often do. To you I am Mrs Momma Lady.

Secondly, to all the detractors, haters and judgmental folks out there. To you I say Hush! Just wait a minute. I’ll get back to you later.

Thirdly, back to you Miley. I saw your video Wrecking Ball. Actually it was thrust at me by Sweet Pea. She said ‘I don’t get why people are hating on her so much.’ She went on to say your wardrobe and lack of it isn’t the only thing about the video and song people should notice. Sweet Pea said it was a love song, but a sad one ..and really, really good. I watched it. Later I watched it again; then again. I might even download it (gasp!) just so I don’t have to watch the video over and over.

Fourthly, I get it. I understand the song. I understand the video. I understand the point of the nakedness. I get it! And that’s why I’m writing this open letter. This is where the detractors, haters and judgers can come back in. But you still need to be quiet, so I can explain it to you.

Fifthly, Wrecking Ball, the video, is a metaphor. Listen to the song – listen, don’t watch. Listen to the words and the ache that goes with them. When you hear the story in the lyric you can watch the video again and the metaphor comes screaming through. See the cinder block walls we put up around our hearts, our selves, to keep us in or others out; the sledgehammer to chip away futilely from the entrapment we’ve put ourselves in. The wrecking ball itself destroys the walls we’ve put up because either the other person or relationship is a force beyond our emotional control. The ball has broken through our self-imposed safe zone, leaving it in shattered pieces. The nudity is the vulnerability we experience while in a relationship – we are exposed, fragile. The wrecking ball is the roller coaster or chaos of the emotional journey of falling in love, out of it and staying even though you know it’s a mess.

Like I said, I get it. I hope the rest of you can see past the obvious and see the deeper picture. I hope the song wasn’t autobiographical. Miley, you are too young to experience this sort of relational chaos and heartbreak. My mother’s heart aches at the thought.

Now go find something decent to wear and come for sloppy joes. I might even make pie, or my not-quite-world famous chocolate chip cookies. I’ll even pour you a glass of iced tea.

~~~ ~~~ ~~~

Note: I don’t like the soft porn aspect of the director’s and editor’s final cut of the video to make Miley appear more sensual in slow motion than actual speed would. Second note: what is with the licking in both recent videos from this new album? And the fixation with your tongue? I don’t get that.

Arts Beats and Eats, a festival

A 4-day festival running Friday through Monday of Labor Day Weekend in downtown Royal Oak, Michigan,  Arts Beats and Eats brings out the crowds– if the weather is nice – but really isn’t all that family friendly, as far as festivals go.

The city has parking arranged all over the place, and it costs $15 per vehicle for lots and ramps nearby and $10 if you park at the high school and take the free shuttle across town. The parking fees help offset the cost of the police and EMS presence the whole weekend. It’s a bit steep, but at least the Royal Oak PD can get paid and not go broke with the overtime. Any on-street meters were reserved for festival use, and unauthorized parking resulted in a $50 parking ticket.  Local neighbors were subject to parking tickets as well, per the festival website FAQ page, but could get the required permit to park — on their own street.

The entire festival area is fenced in.  Admission is charged at the gate and there are 13 of them around the perimeter so you don’t have to wait long to get in, and at $3 a head it’s not that expensive. Admission did change to $5 per person after 5pm. I felt badly for the people who showed up at 5:01 and had to pay the higher price.  Children 3 and under could get in free at any time, and Friday from 11am – 5pm was also free for everyone.

All bags and purses were subject to searching, and by all  I mean even the minimalist  little sling wallets that hold ID, cash, lipstick and a phone. No one and nothing was singled out from what I could see: men, women, teens, diaper bags, backpacks and people of all shades of the ethnic and religious spectrum. (As an aside, I saw a family of Sikh leaving and separately two Jewish families enter — their top-knotted turbans and yarmulkes gave them away. I don’t expect there was much in the line of Kosher or Halal food available.)   Alcohol was sold so the fence kept that contained to the festival. The 2-4 security guards working at each gate made sure your bag was checked, all outside food and beverages stayed outside and your libations stayed inside.

Once inside it started to go downhill.

There were lots of booths for food and drink vendors. The walking space down the middle of the street, Washington, was narrowed considerably by the  booths lined up like row houses on either side of it, which were not booths per se, just generic white or blue e-z up tents. Some of the side streets were only occupied by tents on one side, so they had a bit more room.  The signage for food and drink booths was commercially printed;  none really stood out to grab your attention, and they weren’t numbered or coded so you had no real way of knowing how close you were to the Chicken Shawarma, Mongolian Beef or pizza. None, absolutely none of these took any money from festival goers.  They cost you TICKETS. And this is where the downhill starts sliding fast, and a test drive could come in handy. I’ll get to that later.

Tickets were sold in sheets of 16 for $10 with no refunds and no option to buy fewer than full sheets from what I could see. That comes out to 62.5¢ per ticket.**  One bottle of soda or water was 5 tickets ($3.125), one sandwich — I had shaved prime rib with mushrooms and onions on a Kaiser roll  — was 12 tickets ($7.50). Want an elephant ear? 10 tickets ($6.25); ice cream cones? 5, 7, or 9 tickets ($3.125, $4.375, $5.625); popcorn? lemonade? beer? more tickets. None of the food booths sold beverages, so you had to make a second stop for that. And you had to choose: warm drinks or eat cold food, depending which booth you went to first.There were plenty of drink booths though, maybe one for every three or four food booths, so you didn’t have far to go to find one. Also mind you, one can not spend a few hours walking around in the sun and only have one drink, so you better double or triple up on beverage ticket use.

There was the carnival with rides at both the north and south ends of the festival. A brilliant idea, really. If the kiddos wanted to ride the ferris wheel and the giant slide you had to cross the full length of the festival in order to get to both, passing all the food, drinks and snacks along the way.  The carnival was an added bonus, and added expense for families that bothered to bring their children. All the rides cost tickets, too. Honestly I didn’t even check the cost in tickets for the rides. The last time I was at a fair or carnival most rides and games were 3-5 tickets or $1.875-3.125 each here. I can see why families with kids aged 3-12 didn’t bother to come.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good festival.  But let’s add some things up. There are four family members living at home now, so we’ll just use that to help make it easy. None of us would have done any of the carnival rides or games, but for the sake of argument let’s figure on two kids each doing six of the carnival attractions — three rides, three games.

Parking: $15
Admission: $3 ($5*) x4 — $12, ($20) *after 5pm
Food and drink tickets: 16tx for $10 (sold only if full sheets, so you may have leftovers, or Junior goes without his ice cream cone, and who wants to be that parent)
Each “meal” of

  • sandwich (11tx),
  • non-alcoholic drink (2 @ 5tx),
  • snack (popcorn, chips 8tx),
  • sweet treat for dessert (8tx):
  • 37 tickets per person x4 = 148 or 9.25 sheets of tickets

Carnival:

  • 6 activities each
  • x2 kids = 12 @ 3-5 tickets each
  • 36-60 additional tickets. 2.25-3.75 sheets of tickets

Total tickets in whole sheets: 12 or 13 or $120-130

That makes a grand total of  $157-167. Granted some food items were fewer tickets, but alcohol was more than the 5 for sodas or water.  I’m content thinking this is a pretty good average all around.

Arts Beats and Eats had a very commercialized feel to it, in the “let’s see how much we can get away with charging before attendance numbers start to drop off” sort of way. The stages were all sponsored or had ‘naming rights’ from various entities: Ford, Michigan State Lottery and several radio stations to name a few.  The signs and banners didn’t do much to draw your attention because they all looked the same, were the same size, color and design. The names of the eateries providing the food seemed a footnote.  The artists selling their wares did not stand out as they were mixed in between the row houses of food and drink booths in the same generic e-z up tents. I hope the artists didn’t have to pay large sums to be able to exhibit their work.  The whole thing is underwritten by Ford Motor Company. Which is all good and well, since putting on festivals and fairs generally leaves the organizers scrambling to break even months after the tents are stored away until next time. There were various next-model year vehicles parked around the perimeter for festival goers to TEST DRIVE.  As a bonus you would be rewarded with 6 food tickets for taking the time to do so.

Part of the gate admissions does go to charity according to the website, half of the net proceeds after gate expenses are figured. Those, I imagine, are security, paid ticket sales people, fencing, electricity to run lights at the gates, table and chair rental  On a good year about $325,000 is donated to 13 different charities who send volunteers to help work at the entrance gates. That is a lot of money.  It also makes me wonder what happens to the rest since proceeds from the vendors isn’t mentioned.

All in all, I wasn’t very impressed, mostly on account of the overall cost.  We could take our family of four out for dinner to decent restaurants twice for less than this, and still have money left over, or once to a fine dining establishment and come out about even.  It’s funny how we don’t think twice about spending this much at a festival, but balk at dropping that much for one meal. In the end, isn’t it about the same thing? One meal, I mean.   I think I’d rather have my meal served to me in grand style than eat standing up from a paper tray and risk getting beer dumped down my arm or in my shoe.

I guess I’ve been spoiled by the space and affordability of Festival of the Arts in my own hometown.

** I know we don’t have half-pennies in the US anymore, but this is what the math came out to and all calculations reflect the actual cost in dollars and cents for festival fare.