Friday, November 18, 2016

'Suzanne' and 'Tea And Oranges'

The Story Behind The 'Tea And Oranges' In Leonard Cohen's Song 'Suzanne'

In the summer of '65, Leonard Cohen, the great poet-singer who died last week, spent many happy hours in a warehouse by the St Lawrence River in his hometown, Montreal. As he watched the boats go by, his friend, a young bohemian dancer named Suzanne Verdal, whose warehouse it was, served him tea and oranges that came all the way from China.

Photo By: By Gorupdebesanez
Or so he famously sang in his 1967 debut single, "Suzanne." The haunting ballad would launch Cohen's musical career, taking him from a minor poet and novelist to one of the great songwriters of our time. Tinctured with melancholy, the song touches on love, longing, redemption and faith. It has a mystical quality, but Cohen insisted it was pure journalism. He had simply reported what had happened in that warehouse and set it to music.

So did Suzanne really serve tea and oranges? In more than one interview, Cohen was asked what exactly was meant by those fragrant lines:

"and she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China"

His answer never varied: "She fed me a tea called Constant Comment, which has small pieces of orange rind in it, which gave birth to the image."

He was in fact referring to a store-bought tea manufactured by the Connecticut firm, Bigelow Tea Co. All Cohen had done was deconstruct it into its component parts and whimsically garnish it with a China connection.

Disappointingly prosaic? It might have been, except that Constant Comment has an origin story infused with all the romance of the American entrepreneurial spirit. A child of the Great Depression, this tea would be the founding product of what is one of America's leading specialty tea companies today.

It was created by Ruth Campbell Bigelow, the grandmother of the company's current CEO, Cindi Bigelow. Ruth was a successful interior designer till the Great Depression dealt a body blow to her business.

Constant Comment creator Ruth Campbell Bigelow with her husband David. She developed the formula in the kitchen of her New York brownstone.
Courtesy of Bigelow Tea

"My grandparents literally had no money," says Bigelow. "They had to move to an inn for some time. Those years were very hard."

In 1945, Ruth chanced upon an old colonial tea recipe to make tea in stone containers, flavored with orange peel and sweet spices. She disappeared into the kitchen of her New York brownstone on 50th Street — they'd bought the dilapidated apartment cheap — and began experimenting. She worked at it for weeks. Finally, when she served it to her friends, she was so pleasantly taken aback by the flood of warm comments, she decided to call it Constant Comment.

Photo By: By Gorupdebesanez - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Presented By:
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