I would never have liked rooibos were it not for Tick Tock's packaging. When I was on a collage meal plan, there were an assortment of tea bags, one of which was Tick Tock. Drawn by the bold white lettering on red, the fact that it said "rooibos" and "caffeine free" at the bottom completely passed by my attention. In other words, I mistook it for a brand of black tea, possibly akin to English breakfast.

(Not that I actually remember, but mistaking it for proper tea makes a better story than, say, drinking it because I wanted to avoid caffeine and had heard about rooibos. Because the point I'm trying to make is the allure of the packaging, not the benefits of decaffeinated beverages or the goodness of rooibos. But at some point, whether before or after I discovered Tick Tock I’m not sure, I was avoiding caffeine, having decided that coffee did terrible things to me. But even on that point I don’t know: was I reacting against coffee or black tea?)

It was only after a few days of drinking it that I realized that it tasted a bit strange. And come to think of it the color wasn’t right either. But I kept drinking it because it was Tea Time. I wanted to live the little picture on the box of cake and tea in a black pot.

Let us obsess over this picture. The picture’s small circular frame doesn’t show much, but what little it does suggests a whole scene. Although the framing feels somewhat incidental, the necessary elements of Tea are there: a teapot, two cups (not one), a milk pitcher, and a sugar bowl. The blue-stripe teaware is ornate yet rustic and set on a wooden table. The cake, too, straddles fanciness and simplicity. Yes, it is layered and trimmed, but one does not have to be a patisserie to make this cake, just a cook. I am tempted to say that this is colonial Tea rather than English Tea, which is not particularly surprising because this brand makes much of its being “from the founders of rooibos,” who of course were in South Africa. So the picture may be imagined as an image of how “the founders of rooibos” drank their rooibos back in 1903. Before Tick Tock came to bring us rooibos, we are to understand, there was this scene.

But I’m interested in the cake. It takes up a great deal of the frame. And I can’t seem to read its three-dimensional aspect. The problem is the top, which looks like icing, except that it has these strange dark swirls in it, and the top edge is irregular. So perhaps it’s a very fluffy topping, like a meringue. Except that while the left edge and the shape of the top edge suggests that the cake is sloping, the cut on the right shows it to be straight. But if the top of the cake is flat, why are there dark swirls, and why is the top edge irregular rather than smooth?

More than anything else, though, I want to know what kind of cake this is. Because obviously whoever painted this must have had a type of cake he or she was painting. All I can say is that it is yellow.

I think it’s time to make a yellow cake and drink rooibos brewed from loose leaves, longing for my longing for Tea.

27 March 2011