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The History of and My History with Tea
Which do you prefer?
There are generally two types of people in the world: tea people and coffee people. Some may like both, but they usually choose one over the other. I am strictly a tea person. I have been drinking tea my entire life. It’s strange to think that, essentially, we are drinking the juice of a leaf. We boil water and dye it by dunking the leaves through some type of strainer. It’s a primitive but familiar act, considering how long it has been around.
We’ve developed various tools to prepare it from pots to boil it, to bags to steep it, to special cups from which to drink it. There is an exact science to preparing each different type of tea, but most people just wing it. There are also many unconscious decisions that need to be made while preparing a cup of tea. Brand, type, container, and added flavors make it a very personalized process. Much in the same way we choose what we wear, where we live, and how we act, how we drink our tea is just another identifier in our lives.
Why is it that our favorite beverage says so much about us? Why are we so obsessed with what we drink and how we drink it? In the following paragraphs, I will highlight my favorite things about tea and try to figure out where this obsession comes from.
“Where there’s tea there’s hope.” — Arthur Wing Pinero
Tea drinkers seem to have a calmer, more old-fashioned reputation. We’re not so hopped up on caffeine as coffee drinkers. We’re more intellectual and thoughtful. We sip it slowly and relish the preparation. It’s something we can drink at any time of day and in any attitude. It helps us when we are sick and is quicker and easier than getting a coffee pot started.
That’s not to say that coffee is a bad thing. I can appreciate a coffee drinker’s “addiction” to the drink as I realize that it must be the same feeling that I get with tea, though you don’t think of a tea drinker’s addiction as a negative personality trait, besides the possibility of developing kidney stones (http://www.loyolamedicine.org/transplant/newswire/news/urologist-warns-iced-tea-can-contribute-painful-kidney-stones). It doesn’t have the reputation that coffee does.
Every other week, a study sways the health effects of coffee one way or the other. Coffee drinkers are depicted as hyper, shaky people who need the drink to function. Tea drinkers seem to have dodged these negative depictions, apart from The Mad Hatter and The March Hare from Alice in Wonderland.
Tea originated in Asia but has been consumed by most of the world. The Dutch changed the name from “cha” to “te”. Then, the British took it a step further and changed it to “tea”. Most countries still use the word “cha”. However, since the Dutch are responsible for bringing tea to America, Americans adopted the word that they used for the drink.
Most tea is grown in mountainous areas all over the world. Different flavors of tea have developed based on when they are harvested. White tea is made from the buds and young tea leaves. Green tea leaves are dried and then heated common tea leaves to create the green color and unique flavor. Oolong tea leaves are shaken before they are dried, causing the bruised edges to ferment as they dry which gives it its flavor. Black tea leaves are withered and fully fermented for a long period of time. Rooibos teas are harvested from a South African Red Bush leaves which are then ground and bruised before they are fermented. Mate teas are grown from the South American yerba mate plant.
Tea has grown in popularity in the United States over the last 15 years. Most of our tea comes from China and India. We tend to prefer black tea over any other type and typically drink iced tea more than hot tea. However, green tea is growing in popularity, probably due to its reputation of having numerous health benefits. The average American drinks half a pound of tea per year. One cup of tea can cost as little as three cents to make, but many are willing to pay up to a few dollars for a cup at their favorite coffee house or restaurant.
“When you have nobody you can make a cup of tea for, when nobody needs you, that’s when I think life is over.” — Audrey Hepburn
Where is your favorite place to buy tea?
My History with Tea
I drink tea almost every day. I’ve been known to consume up to two pots of hot tea or a half gallon of iced tea in one day. I drink it hot in the winter to keep warm, and I drink it cold in the summer to stay cool.
There’s a story that when I was just a few months old, I was drinking iced tea from a regular plastic cup. It’s apparent that I couldn’t wait to get started drinking tea. When I was young and used to visit my grandfather, he would always give me a cup of hot tea in a Minnie Mouse mug. I considered it my mug. One day when I was older, he let me take it home. I’ve used it ever since. It’s my go-to cup. Everyone has about a thousand tea cups and coffee mugs in their house, and I am no exception. If there was a fire, and I could only save one thing from my kitchen, it would be that Minnie Mouse mug.
I never did warm up to coffee, despite living in a coffee drinking house. I love the smell, but I think the taste is too bitter and strong. Instead, I began carrying a thermos of tea to class while in college. I had a thermos whose lid doubled as a cup so I would sit at my desk or table sipping from the lid like some kind of book store nerd. After I bought my house a few years ago, I hosted a very informal tea party and invited friends and family over to pig out on bread and desserts (see my Hub “How to Throw a Tea Party” http://laura335.hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Throw-a-Tea-Party ) and drink pot after pot of tea.
My favorite brand of tea is the traditional Lipton. I’ve sampled dozens of flavors and like every kind except for Earl Grey. Brand name tea is definitely superior to generic tea in my opinion. I’ve sampled several flavors of Teavana tea and even purchases a few types, but they didn’t work out for me too well, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t have the right equipment to steep the loose leaf teas. Starbucks tea is fine as well, but I can’t really justify paying $2.00 to have a barista dip a tea bag in water. So, I mostly make my tea at home in my $20.00 cast iron tea kettle with my $3.00 box of Lipton bags. I can drink it with anything in it, but usually, I just drink it plain.
"Come along inside….
We’ll see if tea and buns can make the world a better place"
- The Wind in the Willows
Do you have a favorite tea cup or mug?
Tea parties started in England in the 18th Century when Catharine of Braganza began to take tea in her bed chamber with friends. The custom caught on and was popularized by Queen Anne who used to ask for tea and pastries during the mid-afternoon slump that we tend to experience even today.
Several types of tea parties were created as a result. There’s cream tea where the tea is served with scones and marmalade. Low tea takes place in the afternoon and includes sandwiches and some desserts with the tea. Traditionally, guests sat in low armchairs with side tables that were used to hold their tea and food. Royale tea includes champagne before the tea or sherry afterwards. High tea takes place in the evening and is served with a light meal. All social classes took part in high tea, mostly on Sundays when servants and cooks attended church and didn’t have time to cook a full meal.
Tea party guests must also know the perfect tea party etiquette. Napkins are placed in the lap. Spoons are always placed behind the cup after they are used. Pinky fingers are never turned up when drinking tea; cultured people do pick up their food and silverware this way, but commoners ate with all five fingers. Scones are to be cut horizontally with the marmalade placed on the plate first and then scooped with a knife. Sugar always goes into the tea first, then lemon or milk. Milk and lemon never go together, and milk is never put in the cup before the tea. It’s acceptable etiquette to pour the tea into your saucer to cool before drinking. Sweets are always consumed last. I’m a big fan of order and rules. The fact that tea parties have their own arbitrary customs is comforting to me, as long as they don’t get too stuffy.
“Take some more tea," the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
"I've had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone, "so I can't take more."
"You mean you can't take less," said the Hatter: "it's very easy to take more than nothing."
"Nobody asked your opinion," said Alice.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Which do you best like to add to your tea?
Tea pots and tea sets have become an art form over the years. They can made of sturdy or fragile materials, are decorated with elegant designs, and contain numerous matching pieces. I have decorated my kitchen with small tea pots and have several types of cups. They are carefully designed and make for a pretty table. The growing popularity of loose leaf teas have created the need for special strainers used to steep the leaves so that bits do not end up in the cup.
Tea pots are typically made of one of the following types of materials: cast iron, yixing, bone china, ceramic, and glass. Cast iron pots are the most durable and keep your tea hot the longest. Yixing pots come from a red clay in china and infuse the flavor of the tea into the pot to add flavor to each pot brewed. Bone china pots were originally made of porcelain and bone dust. They have a very decorative yet sturdy quality. Ceramic pots are the European version of yixing pots and allow for a more translucent, decorative quality but do not allow any flavor to seep in. Glass teapots are the most modern and allow you to see the tea steep and watch blooming teas open up.
At the same time, tea making doesn't require a bunch of silver and a flame. Sometimes a simple paper cup, a microwave, and a sink will do. A lot of tea drinking is done at work or on the go. It's simple to just stick a cup in the microwave and steep a tea bag in it for a few minutes. Tea has a transformative quality. It can be the centerpiece of a fancy table or a thirst quencher in a piece of Styrofoam. These days, any way is acceptable.
How do you make your tea?
Remember when people had time to sit down, set up their tea sets, and sip tea in the middle of their day? Me neither. Such a custom is considered a luxury now or a highly planned event. Our ancestors might be appalled to know that much of our tea is consumed through paper and Styrofoam cups and sugar is stirred in using a plastic straw too small to drink from. That’s the evolving nature of the world, and it’s interesting to look back and see how much time and effort was put into a task that takes me five minutes to prepare each day.
I don’t know which is better, if we should savor the more mundane moments in our lives or spend the time doing more productive things. Freeing up our time from drinking beverages may not have produced more productive people. We may always be procrastinators and slaves to the era in which we live, but drinking tea can help us to slow down and actually take a minute to ourselves each day. It reminds us that we don’t always have to rush around or constantly be doing something or looking at something on our numerous screens. Tea is associated with quiet moments; reading, staring out the window, sitting in the garden. Anything rooted in such history that can remind us to stop and take our time is worth preserving and enjoying.
"Remember the tea kettle – it is always up to its neck in hot water, yet it still sings!"
- Author Unknown