This morning, as I sometimes do, I had tea with breakfast, flipping on the electric stove in my apartment to start a kettle boiling. The distance from the stove to the cupboard was short, yet in that walk back I noticed the packet I had chosen — the brand of mint tea I had been buying and brewing for years — was not what I’d thought it was: what the company Bigelow had once called “Plantation Mint” was now “Perfectly Mint.”
I felt sick to my stomach (and not from any expectation of caffeine). I ran back to the cupboard and found an older mint packet tucked away by accident in the Pumpkin Spice box. Sure enough, my eyes were not deceiving me: the name of the tea had changed. Placing the two packets together — the same product, but (bought six months apart) manufactured under different contexts — raised in me questions of myself I had been uncomfortable acknowledging throughout 2020.
At my university, I am the managing editor for an academic journal whose issue this year will focus on food studies. Specifically, my fellow undergraduates and I are undertaking this topic with an awareness, an appreciation, and (we hope) an awakening of the roles of marginalized peoples within food creation and consumption. One of our discussions early in the semester revolved around Aunt Jemima and Quaker Oats’s long-awaited decision this year to replace the Black female caricature on its pancake packaging. The team listened to Still Processing and discussed racial stereotypes in American food advertising, and I personally left the conversation at that.
I felt no particular connection to the controversy. My White family has never bought Aunt Jemima pancake mix (not out of any sense of racial recognition — we just make our pancakes from scratch) or maple syrup (we prefer Log Cabin). We rarely buy Uncle Ben’s rice (only when when we’re in the mood for the long-grain variety) or Land O’Lakes butter (only when the store’s out of margarine). Since moving out of my parents’ house, I have chiefly continued buying the groceries my family brought home to me all my life. Thus the discussion around Aunt Jemima and its derivatives was vital to the journal but, I believed, not related to me, in so far as I could go on rolling my cart past widely-regarded insensitive images while in Walmart or Meijer.
Yet I never paused in picking up Plantation Mint. When I compared the two tea packages this morning, the old and the new, I saw that Bigelow had gone so far as to trademark the earlier name, capitalizing on this particular wording for its intrinsic, elusive value. Something about this image had been important enough to the company to register the name with the government, ensuring the brand did not have to forfeit its wild originality to any speculative interloper.
Staring at the green-black packages for too long evoked a mintiness that made me reminisce. I discovered this sweet strain with my mother when I began drinking tea in high school. We were at Meijer, like all good Midwesterners, with the aisle of teas and coffees hosting herbal, exotic, and some fairly inebriating choices. Plantation Mint seemed noble, moderate among them. No wild claims, no silly drawings, no risk of getting hung-over: just a promise of flavor and freshness. My mom bought me the tea and I went happily brewing.
But what had I ever imagined of the “plantation” in the name? Because it was more than the colors of the box that had drawn me in on that trip to the grocery store. At seventeen, the assurances of quality and “100% American Grown Spearmint” (typed in bold, like the sear on the side of a cow) likely did little to sell me. That name, however — as far as I could ignore it while maintaining its relations to luxury (and thus my relations to retail)— held me in a delicate sway, endearing me to the thought of rows of sun-ripened mint at the same time it alluded to tradition.
What tradition? A national one, at least.
But now that bad name was gone, so I had no reason for guilt. Here it was, my Plantation Mint, with the same deep colors and aromatic blend, just labelled “Perfectly Mint” now. Endurance was deemed essential to this act of maintenance. The company acknowledged as much (one key difference between specimens) on the top of their new box: “Times change. Our tea doesn’t.” A picture of Eunice Bigelow relayed how the founder wanted “to better reflect how people feel about my tea,” while thanking her audience — me — “for continuing to enjoy my special tea.” She didn’t have to say that. No need for a letter. I had bought the tea on Monday assuming it was Plantation Mint.
Plantation Mint. Here was a clear, unambiguous callback to the time of forced servitude in America, to the concentration camp set-up Whites had allowed to prosper under the guise of good economics to the destruction of Black lives. No allusion to the “plantation” in this country permits anything less to come to mind than frames of Gone with the Wind in Tara’s antebellum “glory” or a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin— the name is fastened to the horrors of slavery, nonabstractly, irrevocably, undeniably.
So why had I never considered the name, even felt the need to rationalize it? It was only with the recent change that I wondered how I might defend myself, how I might explain why I ever thought it was OK to purchase a brand of tea that profited from the popular, positive perceptions of slavery. Bigelow Tea makes many appearances on grocery store shelves across the country, a ubiquity permitted by conscious selections from consumers like myself which self-perpetuates through increased marketing outreach. The discriminating buyer may ask pardon on this front, then, since the ability to buy from the same particular brand wherever one goes often outweighs the necessarily nuanced, time-eating decision-making that comes with having to test a new company with each commercial trade (see: fast food). Yet we make a decision to choose that brand the first time. I admit that I thought my attraction to sweet things, my preference for affordability, but also my capitulation to the rows and rows of Bigelow stock excused me from having to grapple with a history that profited— that is, continued to make money — from the unreperated trauma of Black Americans. I never acknowledged the name because I knew I could not rationalize it.
Perhaps more importantly, though, how had I not noticed the change until five days after I’d returned from my latest Meijer visit? It took that long for me to realize that I had not bought what I’d intended: the plantation. Of course, the only thing that had changed was the packaging — Ms. Bigelow admits as much — so there would be no change in flavor if I never tasted with my eyes. Of course, this is impossible: food advertising permeates through the cultivation of multiple sensory cues because eating is not a solely taste-based endeavor. You hear the Folger’s being poured into a cup on the radio or smell the McCormick spices placed at the end of the aisle. To take tea requires the contours of my mug, the pull of the bag string, the warmth on my lips, as much as the employment of my tongue. That I had missed the subtle visual difference between “Plantation” and “Perfectly” likely reflects a repression of the connotations arising from the original name more than some inability to see while I shop (or drink).
In all this meditation on the two different packets, however, and all its accompanying accusations, I was struck by a sense of disappointment. On an intellectual and ethical level, I was glad Bigelow had removed the offensive name on the first packet without abrogating the corporate duty in explaining the necessity of the change (though the printed response was certainly wanting in directness). Still, when I looked at the second packet, I felt a loss of something special, a unique appellation having retreated to genericness. “Perfectly Mint”: it sounded like something anyone could buy. Was commonness all I deserved? The emotions wrapped up in the old name, the sentiments that I had carried unknowingly since my first purchase, were forced to dissolve and simmer in front of me like sugar in a frying pan. Advertising had worked its primary objective, for me to buy without thinking, to purchase without pondering, to feel a tinge of regret when what’s comfortable must change. The crystallized nature of the original structure had to instead melt under this new heat, fall in on itself, mold and congeal until it was re-oriented, re-figured into a messy but edible form.
“Perfectly Mint” got me through writing this article, yet I drink the tea now with caution, the numbers of boxes I’ve gone through under the old name lingering as a record of shame. Do I get to go back to mindless brewing because someone else acted for me? Am I absolved of all prior liability now that the company has changed? I obviously had never believed I might be lengthening the pains associated with Black enslavement and disenfranchisement by buying mint tea; now that I’m aware, there’s no title to boycott. The tangibility has transferred. What else am I left unaware of? My grandmother was once an employee of Quaker Oats: how many bottles of Aunt Jemima did she handle before that distribution center in Tipton closed? What record do I have left to uncover? Does the change in the name of this mint tea even provide a substantive betterment of the condition of Black people in the United States? Whose life was saved in the process? Is the redaction important, or is it a show meant to subvert real change? Should I forgo the Bigelow brand regardless of their move, pride myself on pursuing equality, still picturing myself in a huge white dress en route to the barbecue as a peacock watches behind me?