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


Category:  Entertainment

Via:  buzz-of-the-orient  •  3 years ago  •  11 comments


The Story Behind The 'Tea And Oranges' In Leonard Cohen's Song 'Suzanne'
"and she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China"

S E E D E D   C O N T E N T

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


Leonard Cohen performs on stage at the Musikhalle in 1970 in Hamburg, Germany.

K & K Ulf Kruger OHG/Redferns/Getty Images

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.

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.

At the time, America had only black tea and green tea. Ruth would pioneer the concept of specialty teas. However,   despite the glowing reviews from her friends, establishing her new orange tea in the market proved to be an uphill slog.

It was first sold in squat tins wrapped in gold foil to specialty stores and boutiques. Since the family   couldn't afford a colored label, Ruth's husband and son, David Sr. and David Jr., sat up every night painstakingly hand-painting the green background and red dresses of the two ladies on the label shown drinking tea. In the morning, the tins were loaded into the family station wagon and sold store by store.


Constant Comment was first sold in tins wrapped in gold foil. The family could only afford single color labels for the first tea tins. So David Sr. and his son, David Jr., would hand-paint the red ladies on the labels.

Courtesy of Bigelow Tea

One night, a dejected David Sr. said, "Son, don't tell your mother, but I don't think this company is ever going anywhere."

But then the Bigelows received an invaluable piece of feedback. One grocer reported that a customer had opened a tin, got a whiff of the heady orange fragrance, and was captivated. Realizing that the zestful   aroma was the product's defining feature, the inventive Ruth supplied every shopkeeper with a "whiffing jar." Labeled "Open and Whiff," it was placed by the cash register in the way that perfume-testing bottles are available today at cosmetic counters.

Soon Constant Comment was being sold at Bergdorf's and Bloomingdales. But even then, says Cindi Bigelow, sales did not leap. "It was a very slow, gentle rise. The major jump took place in the 1970s," she says, "when we put our teabags in a folding box instead of a tin — now it became more presentable. And sales took off."

Bigelow is "very, very proud" of the Cohen connection. "When I first heard the song years and years ago, a friend pointed it out to me, and said,   did you know he's talking about Constant Comment?" she says. "It was a real surprise, but we're thrilled to have that association."

So did the tea and oranges come all the way from China?

"No, they did not," laughs Bigelow. "The tea my grandmother used — and which we continue to use — is handpicked from the top of a mountain in Sri Lanka. We continue to buy from the same tea gardens even today."

And the oranges? "Not China, not even close," she says. "I can't tell you which country our oranges are from because that would be giving away too much, but it's from the same source that my grandmother used."

Interestingly, Suzanne Verdal remembers the "tea and oranges" a little differently. In 1998 she told BBC Radio, "We had tea together many times and mandarin oranges ... I would always light a candle and serve tea and it would be quiet for several minutes, then we would speak. And I would speak about life and poetry and we'd share ideas."

"I believe Cohen's version," says Bigelow. "Because he was registering everything."

But where Suzanne Verdal and the Bigelow Tea Co. are in perfect accord is in their common devotion to the environment. Suzanne was an early recycler. Cohen's song describes her wearing "rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters," an aesthetic shaped by her commitment to repurposing old clothes. Bigelow, which tags itself as a "Zero Waste to Landfill" company, is big on recycling.

"It's part of the DNA of the employees," says Bigelow. "Corrugated boxes are shredded for packaging, tea dust is used on farms for compost, all our cafeterias use compostable components. There are 900 solar panels on the roof of our Fairfield plant, which gives us 15 percent of the energy we use. We are proud of being a family-run, inclusive company that believes in kindness. All our teabags are made in America."

The Bigelow website has several complaints from Constant Comment connoisseurs about missing the old taste. So has the formula of their founding tea changed? The question appalls Bigelow.

"Absolutely not," she says. "People drink with their eyes — and because the design on the box has changed,   they assume the taste has changed. It hasn't. Till today, the only two people who know the formula are my parents. They put on their lab coats, go into a room and do the mixing — six minutes of this and 12 minutes of that. What we can't help is the variability in the crop of oranges from year to year, but we would never ever change the original recipe. My father hasn't read those comments, and if he did, he would be so insulted and so hurt — his whole view of mankind would change. I'm not joking."


Ruth Campbell Bigelow, the creator of Constant Comment.

Courtesy of Bigelow Tea

Ruth Bigelow died before seeing her company prosper or knowing that her tea would make its way into one of the most beautiful love songs of the age.   She died in 1966, the same year that "Suzanne" was made famous by Judy Collins.

"My grandmother was a very generous woman, the sort who would give the shirt off her back," says Bigelow. "But more than anything, she was tenacious. For a woman to be running a business in the 1940s was not an easy thing at all, but she persevered. Because of her, we are where we are today."

That's why the family has resisted suggestions from canny advertising agencies to change the name of the tea. Constant Comment   doesn't exactly trip off the tongue.  " It's the name my grandmother gave," says Bigelow, "and we're not changing it."

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.


jrDiscussion - desc
Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
1  seeder  Buzz of the Orient    3 years ago

Listen to Leonard Cohen sing "Suzanne"....


Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by
You can spend the night beside her
And you know that she's half crazy
But that's why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China
And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer
That you've always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that she will trust you
For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
And you want to travel with him
And you want to travel blind
And you think maybe you'll trust him
For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body with her mind.
The people of Montreal consider Suzanne to be their song to be about their city Montreal, because the reference to the "river" is the St. Lawrence River beside Montreal that runs from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, and the reference to Our Lady of the Harbour is a cathedral near the river in Montreal.  As well, Leonard Cohen was born in and spent most of his growing years and young adulthood in Montreal.  
Joan Baez is quoted as saying that she doesn't understand much of what Leonard Cohen composes, but she said it comes from deep inside him, and it goes deep inside of those who hear him. 
Leonard Cohen is my all time favourite singer-songwriter, and Suzanne has been since I first heard it, watching Leonard Cohen sing it on an outdoor stage on a cool night in front of a thousand absolutely silent enthralled people at the Mariposa Folk Festival in the late 1960s, my most favourite folk song.  It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because I had known young women like Suzanne. 
Professor Expert
2  Krishna    3 years ago

I can relate to both the song-- and the tea! 

I really like the song when it came out. 

Didn't particularly think a lot about the tea and oranges from China-- just thought it meant bringing back exotic "delicacies" from a foreign land.

Up until I saw this seed I didn't see any deeper meaning. And never associated anything in the song with Constant Comment.

And while I never associated that phrase with that particular tea-- I knew Constant Comment well! Long ago (the 1970s IIRC) I used to try all sorts of interesting and unusual food and drink. Tried a few teas  ( I especially fragrant ones....for quite a while I was a big fan of Earl Gray). Also smoked a pipe and tried some very unusual tobaccos.

But then I tried Constant Comment tea and was hooked-- drank that one for quite a while.

Professor Expert
2.1  Krishna  replied to  Krishna @2    3 years ago

Back then I was mainly interested in tastes-- now I/m a bit of a "health nut" so just about everything I eat or drink is picked because its a "Super Food" or at least has strong health benefits.

Currently I try to drink at least one cup a day of these (Organic only)-- I started because of health benefits:

1. Matcha ( A form of Green tea). 

2. Pu'erh. I started with boxes of inexpensive (but Organic) tea bags, drinking it just because its healthy.But occasionally I have some hi quality stuff-- loose tea that comes in metal cylinders. Really interesting taste.

I also have a few blends based on TCM for specific purposes that I drink occasionally.

Oh-- occasionally Mugwort...supposedly it enhances Psychic powers--- especially strong for generating dreams.

Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
2.1.1  seeder  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Krishna @2.1    3 years ago

I'm aware of the medicinal qualities of Pu'er tea, and for a while I drank it, but I don't drink tea much any more, usually herbal when I do.  I have one mug (about the size of two regular cups) of coffee every morning, and also orange,and cranberry juices every day, sometimes skim milk, and of course, water.

Professor Expert
2.1.2  Krishna  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @2.1.1    3 years ago

Cranberries are considered a by some to be a "Superfood" (actually most berries are).

Orange juice IMO is of mixed benefits-- it has tons of sugar. (The only time I drink it is when I have a bad cold or a flu)...and then only for a few days.

Coffee used to come in for a lot of criticism from many health food faddists, but in recent years (at least in the U.S.) that's changed-- now many consider it a superfood! (At least when taken without sugar and/or artificial sweetners). 

Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
2.1.3  seeder  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Krishna @2.1.2    3 years ago

Cranberry juice has medicinal (renal) benefits, so I hope it makes up for the orange juice I drink. I do use one sweetener (equal) in my one daily mug of coffee.  

Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
3  seeder  Buzz of the Orient    3 years ago

On the Creative Arts group we had a topic of posting a photo that would illustrate a title or line from a poem or song, and for Cohen's line from Suzanne "And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China" I set up and photographed and then posted this picture, which IS of tea and oranges that WERE from China.


Raven Wing
Professor Guide
3.1  Raven Wing  replied to  Buzz of the Orient @3    3 years ago

And you posted a great picture essay regarding the poem Hallux posted in the group, that indeed told the meaning of each part of the poem. Truly a beautiful pictorial version of the poem.

Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
3.1.1  seeder  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  Raven Wing @3.1    3 years ago

Thank you, RW.  You contribute a lot towards the success of that group as well.  It would be great if there were more cultured and/or talented members of NT to pariticipate in it.  But, as is said, "Chacun a son gout."

Professor Principal
4  JohnRussell    3 years ago


Buzz of the Orient
Professor Expert
4.1  seeder  Buzz of the Orient  replied to  JohnRussell @4    3 years ago

John, you KNOW I can't open YouTube, so explain what it is please. 


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