When people ask me what led me to study South Asian history, the first thing I always tell them I fell in love with Rudyard Kipling’s Kim when I was eight. The second thing I tell them is that I had a wonderful professor at Carleton who inspired me.
Eleanor Zelliot’s memorial service is today. I can’t be there in person. Allow me to share this memory with you:
Masala chai–milky, sweet, and rich with spice–was once an Indian restaurant treat. Now it is offered as an exotic alternative in coffee shops and is available as a concentrated syrup on grocery shelves. But for anyone who studied South Asian history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, between 1969 and 1997, chai is not a product, it’s a memory–eternally linked to Saturday morning classes at Eleanor Zelliot’s house.
I was introduced to Eleanor’s “Special Masala Gujurati Railway Tea” the winter term of my freshman year. I grumbled about the idea of a Saturday class, but I signed up for her History 12 seminar on imperialism anyway, driven by my love for Kipling’s Kim, which was part of the curriculum. When I learned that we would meet at Eleanor’s house on Saturdays, I grumbled even more.
Minnesota’s winter had been an unhappy surprise when I came back from the Ozarks after Christmas break. Nothing in my past had prepared me for a wind chill of 40 below and snow that didn’t melt after two days. It was bad enough walking across campus. The thought of walking two blocks off-campus to Eleanor’s little green house was hellish. I pictured a weekly battle against biting wind, knee-deep snow and the uncertainties of walking on icy sidewalks
All my complaints were forgotten as soon as I stepped inside on the first Saturday of the term. Eleanor’s house was a revelation of warmth and comfort, full of deep chairs, Indian art, books, and enthusiastic houseplants. A fireplace took up most of the interior wall and that morning the fire in it was as cheerful as Fezziwig. A row of brightly-colored coffee pots stood warming on the hearth, filling the room with glorious smells of hot cider and something I couldn’t identify. If I hadn’t been confused by the unexpected coziness and blinded by my fogged-over glasses, I might have chosen the recognized pleasure of hot cider. Instead, I blindly accepted the mug of chai that one of my classmates thrust into my hands. The unfamiliar drink combined the warmth of Eleanor’s house and the exotic world of Kipling’s India in a mug. It was as innocent as hot cocoa and as sophisticated as mulled wine. I was hooked.
I drank quarts of Eleanor’s chai over the ten weeks of that cold winter term and during the years that followed. Twenty-five years later, chai remains one of my favorite winter treats. I love to recreate that moment of discovery with the welcome of a small fire and a thermos of Eleanor’s chai after a walk on a snowy afternoon. I occasionally buy a cup of coffee shop chai, but I’m always
revolted disappointed. The commercial version, made from syrup, is too sweet and too shallow, without the spiced complexity of the real thing. And so I return to Eleanor’s recipe for “Special Masala Gujurati Railway Tea”, with its memories of a cold winter and the beginning of the warmest of friendships.
Eleanor Zelliot’s “Special Masala Gujurati Railway Tea”
(makes 4 teacups or two mugs)
2 cups water
2 cups milk
4 teaspoons black tea
2 cinnamon sticks
12 or more whole cloves
6 or more cardamom pods
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
Bring two cups of water to a boil; add tea and half the spices. Steep for 15-20 minutes, until very strong. Meanwhile, heat the milk over a low flame with the remaining spices. Strain the tea into the milk. Heat gently. Remove from stove, stir in sugar to taste, and relax.