Though she was born in Bethesda Maryland, lived part of her childhood in Brazil, and has lived in other parts of California, Mendocino County is certainly where Lee White has found her perfect place.
When she first moved there with her husband, they were part of the back-to-the-land movement “That’s when I learned how to cook,” she says. “My husband was an avid sailor, and he believed that you should be able to make a meal out of whatever is at hand.”
The couple had a garden and gleaned fruit from orchards that had gone wild. Lee canned and made bread. Her husband made beer. “We learned how to make everything from scratch. I even learned how to dress a deer.”
When her baby was born, it intensified her commitment to learn about healthy foods. “I worked hard to get away from antibiotics and anything that could compromise our immune systems. For 9 years we lived off the grid in Comptche, 22 miles east of the town of Mendocino. We had to be self-sufficient, so knowing how to use natural remedies was very important.”
Lee was hired to teach food service at Mendocino High School. “I taught the kids how to make the school lunches, and they were the best they’d ever had,” she says with pride. “In the beginning the school would give me all the at-risk kids, but they are often kinesthetic learners, so food preparation was perfect for them. It’s amazing how many academic subjects can actually be learned from cooking. We used fresh ingredients and made everything from scratch. A few of them went on to become chefs.”
When Lee retired from the school, she was a real estate agent with her husband for a while, but she wanted a business of her own. She had been blending her own teas for years and also tasting blends in bakeries and coffee houses, basically educating her palate. Her first venture was “tea parties, which were part tea tutorials, and part tea bazaars. At the time, most people had limited knowledge of tea. Many had never tasted green or white tea. I found that once they knew more about it and had tasted new blends, they became enthusiastic tea drinkers.”
Mendocino Tea Co. grew out of those tea parties, and has expanded the offerings as Lee has experimented with her blends and has learned more. “Tea blending was instantly second nature for me. There are so many tea-drinking cultures in the world, and each one brings unique ingredients and approaches to tea.”
An important product for Mendocino Tea now is Lee’s herbal infusion, Tuber Tonic. “Through a serious health issue in our family, I learned about the medicinal qualities of turmeric. Tuber Tonic has become our best-selling tea – it’s so delicious and it’s so good for you!”