by Nikoletta Gjoni
New to the YUM-DERDOME? Click here to read the intro and first installment.
When the kettle whistles on the stovetop, the kitchen begins to smell like the steep climb up Llogora; of bare mountains with bare teeth. I rarely catch a slow-simmering nostalgia for Albania in the winter, but when I do, it usually comes with a side of honey and a wedge of lemon.
Sideritis or ironwort—simply called “mountain tea” at home—is more culture than beverage. It streams through my DNA and binds it together. It was also an obsession of mine to get friends hooked on it as much as I was. Travels to Albania almost always guaranteed bushels bought for literal cents, to be later stuffed in suitcases. We’d joke about how ridiculous it would be to get busted at the airport for wild mountain tea.
One friend who received it as a gift asked if it was homegrown pot. The long stems and woolly leaves looked more like something you’d take recreationally than something you’d take to suppress a bad cough.
Another friend opened the gift bag and stuck his head inside to find a scrawny bushel tied with twine. “What is this?” He asked.
“It’s tea,” I answered, ready to give him the whole breakdown of how and why it’s great, and how to drink it.
“It kind of stinks,” He responded, closing the bag back up. Bewildered, I threw back that it was the best tea no one knew about. Period.
Subjectivity did not have a seat at this table.
Jasmines and oolongs and Earl Greys are typically tucked in the back of the pantry, their pretty boxes collecting dust as they wait for the Albanian import to finally be depleted. I’m not the biggest tea drinker there is, but when I do find myself filling the kettle and turning on the stove, I know what I’m reaching for in that pantry.
Habits have a way of disguising truths. Maybe the truth is that ironwort does smell funny. Maybe it tastes funny, too. But when I crack the stems and brush my hands over the puffy little plants, soft and hairy as caterpillars, I can already taste the brew; the amber liquid that smells of grandma’s cashmere sweaters; of Roman ruins and stone houses overseeing the Ionian.
Nikoletta Gjoni is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer living outside of Washington, DC. She currently has a collection of linked short stories out on submission about people living in Communist Albania, spanning the 1970s through to the present day. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the Kindling Volume III anthology, Cleaver Magazine, New Flash Fiction, and Riggwelter Press, among others. Her first published story was nominated for the 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau prize. You can follow her on Twitter @NikiGjoni.