Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reading Between the Leaves

My earliest memory of tea was when I was a young child and my mother brought a steaming cup with toast when I was sick. While being sick was not a pleasant memory, being fussed over by my mother certainly was. Tea was an adult drink that I was usually barred from having. It contained caffeine and my mother was afraid it would stunt my growth. Considering that I never topped 5-foot-3 in height, it would seem that refraining from tea was not enough to overcome my genetics.

Tea is my favorite drink, making me not so much fun at parties.
Legend has it that tea was first discovered in 2737 B.C.E., when tea leaves blew into a cup of hot water about to be drunk by the second emperor of China, Shen Nung. Fortunately for him, there were no hemlock plants growing nearby. By 400 A.D., demand for tea grew, as a medicinal drink. Toward that end, many tea drinkers added, among other things, onions to their teas. By 593 A.D., Buddhism and tea journeyed together from China to Japan. Japanese priests studying in China spirited away tea seeds and leaves. By the Sung Dynasty, 960 to 1280 A.D., Chinese tea drinking really caught on, with elegant teahouses and teacups carefully crafted from porcelain and pottery. By 1422, the Japanese tea ceremony was born.

A bit slower on the uptake, Europeans learned about tea in 1589 when a Venetian author credited the lengthy lives of Asians to their tea drinking. Knowing a good product when they saw it, in 1610 the Dutch East India Company marketed tea as an exotic medicinal drink. Due to its high cost, only the aristocracy could afford it.

In 1618, Chinese ambassadors presented the Russian Czar Alexis with many chests of tea, but lacking vision, he refused them as useless. In 1635, tea became all the rage at the Dutch court, but a German physician warned about the dangers of drinking tea. It's not clear what they might have been. By 1650, tea parties became quite trendy among women across the social classes. Husbands cried family ruin, and religious reformers called for a ban. After all, the ladies were having fun, so it had to be wrong. Unconcerned, the Dutch spread their leafy decadence to the New World when they settled in New Amsterdam, which later became New York.

It wasn’t long before the first tea was sold as a health beverage in London, England at Garway's Coffee House. A great debate ensued in 1661, when a Dutch doctor praised its curative powers while French and German doctors cautioned about its harmful side. Let’s keep in mind that these were the same medical professionals who recommended leaches and blood letting.

In 1662, when Charles II of England took a tea-drinking bride (Catherine Braganza of Portugal), tea became so chic that alcohol consumption declined. In the 1700s, the controversy over tea continued in England and Scotland where opponents claimed it was overpriced, harmful to one’s health, and might even lead to moral decay. Consequently, tea drinking thrived in British coffeehouses.

By 1735, Russia came to its senses and in order to fill the country’s tea demand, traders and 300 camels traveled 11,000 miles to and from China, which took 16 months. Russian tea-drinking customs emerged, which entailed using tea concentrate, adding hot water, topping it with a lemon, and drinking it through a lump of sugar held between the teeth. That can’t have been good for dental hygiene.

By 1765, tea was the most popular beverage in the American colonies. So naturally, two years later, the British Parliament enacted the Townshend Revenue Act, imposing duty on tea and other goods imported into the British American colonies. This disturbed the colonists, and after a town meeting held in Boston to protest the Townshend Revenue Act, Americans boycotted British imports and began smuggling in Dutch teas. Take that, King George III! In 1770, Parliament rescinded the Townshend Revenue Act, eliminating all import taxes except those on—you guessed it—teas. Now the colonists were really mad, and in 1773, disguised as Native Indians, responded by dumping British tea into Boston Harbor. Such “tea parties” were repeated in Philadelphia, New York, Maine, North Carolina, and Maryland through 1774. King George and the British Parliament decided to get even by enacting the Boston Port Bill, which said that Boston Harbor would be closed until the East India Company was reimbursed for every last penny of its tossed tea. Okay, enough, the colonists replied. You’re not the boss of me. And in 1775, after several British attempts to end the taxation protests, the colonists kicked off the American Revolution. All because of tea.

On the English side of the pond, in 1826, English Quaker John Horniman introduced the first retail tea in sealed, lead-lined packages. Not the healthiest of packaging. Still, tea drinking marched on. In 1840, Anna the Duchess of Bedford, introduced afternoon tea, which became a lasting English tradition. In 1904, Englishman Richard Blechynden created iced tea during a heat wave at the St. Louis World’s Fair. And in 1908, New York tea importer Thomas Sullivan inadvertently invented tea bags when he sent tea to clients in small silk bags, and they mistakenly steeped the bags whole. Doh!

Courtesy of
Flash forward to the 1960s. While many people partook of binge drinking or experimented with drugs, I and my friends were a bit tamer in our tastes. During our junior high years, my friend, Debi, and I had tea-drinking marathons. Nothing fancy, just black tea served with milk and sugar—cups and cups of it. We were two teenagers, teeming with hormones and caffeine, just carrying on an age-old tradition.

Today, tea is a ritual in my home. My husband and I drink tea as an entrée to sharing the events of the day. As we cradle our mugs, we contemplate with gratitude how the right to do so was hard-fought by our forefathers and their visionary counterparts across the Atlantic. For centuries, European doctors and community leaders cautioned a naïve populace against the impending harm of this amber liquid, from its insidious if not vague health dangers to its inevitable outcome of  moral decay and ruin. Knowing that a quiet cup of tea brewed in the privacy of our kitchen represents a steady and irreversible descent into depravity, only makes the act of drinking it all the more satisfying.

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