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Helen Gustafson, author, authority on tea

LOS ANGELES -- Helen Gustafson, an expert on tea who wrote several books on the subject and who developed a tea service for Chez Panisse that became a signature for the trend-setting Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, died at home in Berkeley on Dec. 14. She was 74 and had a six-year battle with cancer, according to her husband, Clair.

A champion of fine teas properly prepared, Ms. Gustafson taught and wrote about her subject with passion. During her close to 20 years at Chez Panisse she attended to a selection of organically grown teas and set meticulous guidelines on how to prepare a brew, which she expected the staff to follow. They nicknamed her Lady Teas-dale.

When she gave demonstrations in stores, Ms. Gustafson urged her audience to use only newly boiling water poured over loose tea leaves. "I can barely talk about tea bags," she gasped at the mention of them. They prevent the leaves from releasing their full flavor, she explained.

"She was a force," Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. "It was difficult to say no to Helen. She invited the restaurant bussers, who make the tea, to her house and served them tea as it should be served. She left tea leaves on my doorstep for me to sample. Helen made it happen."

Born in Minneapolis, Ms. Gustafson wrote about the childhood ritual that inspired her career in her best-known book, "The Agony of the Leaves: The Ecstasy of My Life With Tea" (1996). With her mother and grandmother she drank Chinese tea and ate ginger cookies, a tradition that "remains fixed in my memory as a time of great happiness," she wrote. At tea time, she recalled, "discipline was suspended, admonishments silenced, and I became a full-fledged person in the household."

She graduated from Syracuse University and earned a master's degree in drama from the University of Minnesota, where her father was a physicist on the faculty. After World War II she moved to Los Angeles to teach drama in the public school system. She met her future husband there. The couple moved to Berkeley where she taught special education in the nearby Albany, Calif., public school system. He became an English professor at the community college level.

A yearlong tour of Europe in the early 1960s changed the course of Ms. Gustafson's career. "She became a student of tea, starting in Scotland," her husband said in an interview this week. She read books about tea and considered "Tea Lover's Treasury" (1982) by James N. Pratt her bible, he said.

She finally met Pratt at a party in San Francisco. In a ceremonial manner typical of her flamboyant style, she knelt before him and asked him to autograph her copy of his book. "He took it very well," Clair Gustafson recalled of the moment.

In the early 1970s, Ms. Gustafson quit teaching and went to work as a hostess at the Swallow Restaurant Collective in Berkeley, where she met a number of local chefs and food authorities, including Waters, who offered her a job at Chez Panisse in the early 1980s.

She also met cookbook author Marion Cunningham. "Helen was very flamboyant, attractive and well dressed," recalled Cunningham. "She had definite opinions and she spoke up. But it would be hard not to forgive her."

A vivid conversationalist and hostess, she often held tea parties at her home, which was filled with tea cups and pots she collected. On one occasion, "the invitation was to a waltz," recalled Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, who met Gustafson in the 1970s when they both lived in San Francisco. "Not everyone can waltz. But you would expect Helen to have a waltz dress and to know how to sweep across the dance floor. She had a grand sense of occasion."

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