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On Drinking Tea and Calamity

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Childhood memories of stuffing my older sister’s teapot from her homeland of China with mint leaves from our mother’s secret garden. Hands milky colored, tinted with soil from digging outside, and still dimpled with youth as I would fill the teapot with hot water and let the mint steep. The juices would infuse into the water making a refreshing summers’ day delight. As an adolescent I would sip herbal tea from a butterfly mug, sending pictures to my older sisters who now lived far away, reminding them of how much I was growing up, goodness I was starting to drink tea regularly like they did. As a young adult, nearly as warming as when a heart first falls in love is a cup of tea. Herbal tulsi, rooibos with cream, or English breakfast with a splash of almond milk, I have loved them each. Yet, through various forms of media and pop culture my brain steeped in a conspiracy: Americans make tea differently than Brits and Brits make it better. It was on an early Spring day of calamity that I observed this hypothesis for myself.

Journal entry: 29 March, 2020

A day fraught with injury and stress for one person may very well be a day of dreams coming true for another. While one must feel empathy towards the injured party of course, it is nearly impossible to quelch such joy of satisfaction. This is yesterday that I am speaking of. I awoke at 5:15am in order to be out the door and on my way to Connecticut with my parents by 6:15am. The trip was both personal and business related as my father had to pick up some car parts for our totaled car but also wanted to purchase some old oak shelves from a couple in the Hudson Valley on our way back through the empire state. Due to several health complications in the past two decades my father’s body can seem frail at times, yet he is a relentless worker. This relentless spirit of his has created multiple different business ventures (the latest being my family’s coffee shop and organic foods market in a very small and poor village) to driving over 500 miles for a good deal on barely used winter tires. Now at his age of 61 we drive towards the eastern horizon in pursuit of car parts and old shelves, and I come along to help with the heavy lifting. K-pop blaring through my headphones and 1984 in hand I sit in the back of the car through the hours to Connecticut and then back to New York, I admire Kingston in the Hudson Valley as the world around me starts to change from Winter to Spring. Slushy snow still resides in the ditches on rotting leaves, yet the sunshine that permeates the clouds and falls onto the landscape creates a sense of expectation for balmy days in me. Soon I find that we have pulled up to a rustic Italianate style house. Aged brick is covered in ivy and a gate closes off the driveway. As my father gets out my mother says something along the lines of, “You never know with craigslist sellers, they might be murderers.” And she’s right, they could be murderers. I imagine the castoffs of a mob family, rich because of the money they were given to stay quiet. Or maybe these people are of the likes of Bonny and Clyde, a couple, madly in love, living off the riches of their murdering rampage and bank heists. Hiding in upstate New York, praying they blend in with all the hipsters and Brooklyn transplants. Or maybe, this is a drug connection, rustic neo-classicism is simply the facade for a dark interior of meth labs in the living room and fentanyl laced cocaine in the loo. A family that sacrifices morality for the sake of monetary joy.

Even if these were simply my bored-in-the-car musings there were some historical and philosophical truths to them. In fact, in the 1700s it was not uncommon for sacrifices, as drastic as murder, to be made for small joys. Journalist Nina Maryris elaborates on this dark subject for NPR, “In 18th century England, tea smuggling was a thriving enterprise. Steep taxes on tea made it unaffordable to the ordinary farm hand and factory worker, who craved a cuppa as much as an aristocrat did.” At the time, tea for the Brits was somewhat of an aristocratic privilege, yet a painful bite in the bank account could not stop these “commoners” from wanting their tea and crumpets. Thus teatime tax evasion soon became a thriving smuggling market from India to England and it did not die for some time. However, even while the proletariat were benefiting from the smuggling in that they got their tea, it came at the cost of gang violence. In 1747 a tug of war between England’s customs and a tea cartel had deadly and tortuous implications. A man by the name of Daniel Chater had helped one of the leaders of a cartel in a tea heist, his involvement led to his being called up by customs officials. As Chater and a customs official traveled across the English countryside for investigation, their actions that would result in punishment for the tea gang were suspected by their innkeeper. This innkeeper then told her sons who were a part of the tea gang. The customs official and Chater did not meet a happy ending. They were tortured for days, in ways that went beyond the “modern” civility of the 1700s. Chater was dumped down a well and “they flung rocks and gateposts on him to finish the job.” The customs officer’s demise: buried alive. All of this for the midday delight of a cuppa tea. Martyris continues, “...the smuggling went on for decades. Fear of neither the noose nor gibbet deterred smugglers. It was only in 1784, when the 25-year-old Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger boldly slashed the tea tax – from 119 percent to 12.5 percent – that the smugglers finally lost their market.” As one can see, violence for a cup of tea has not been uncommon.

Journal entry: 29 March, 2022

A portly bearded man appears from the house and walks towards my father who is now on the sidewalk to greet the stranger with the shelves. The man is wearing flannel and looks like a slightly older, more rotund version of Hugh Grant if he decided to run from fame and look like a sophisticated redneck. Hugh Grant is followed by a woman with bobbed platinum blonde hair and a sleek monotone outfit. A black bow decks the crown of her head that makes her forty some years have a youthful and frivolous edge to them. I soliloquize, “They don’t really look like serial killers, or meth lab operators for that fact, maybe they really are the antique collectors they say they are.” Upon seeing that the couple do not appear to be murderers my mother and I join threesome in the brutally chilled march air. It turns out that Hugh Grant is actually Russel (or so he says) and that his partner is named Laura. All apprehension is replaced with enrapturement as I hear the fall-rise intonation of British english. I, ever the fan of Jane Austen, The Great British Bake Off, and William Wordsworth, am filled with curiosity towards these expats. My father, Russel and I set to the task at hand: loading the 10 foot solid oak shelves. My father backs the trailer into the now open driveway as Russel opens up the garage. We heave the three shelves onto the trailer and I wait on the sidelines as Russel and my father finish up the load by jamming some large cardboard boxes between the shelves for safety. I notice that my father is getting rather enthusiastic with his jumping directly onto the trailer’s edge to jam a box between the shelves. He high knees up to the edge of the trailer and with a “BAM” he hits the box to go farther down. His feet are only half way on the trailer edge and his arms are not holding onto anything yet he hops back down and then back up to give the box one final shove. Up he goes, yet his feet: not entirely on the trailer’s edge, his hands: in the air, and he teeters. Before I can reach out to balance him, he falls. Within the blink of an eye he hits the pavement backwards. His hands saved his head from hitting against the ground and his pelvis took the brunt of the shock. The British expats stood shocked as I hurried over to lift him up, only realizing upon his verbalizing that he was not quite alright to stand. He had heard a pop behind his knee which caused it to give out and for him to lose balance. With the help of my mom and I he managed to sit on the back of the trailer as we contemplated what to do. The couple seemed to be quite concerned, and in a slightly awkward state as a stranger had just fallen and hurt himself in their driveway. Breaking the atmosphere of concern with her lovely inflexion Laura said the magic words that I have always wanted to hear, “Can I make you a cuppa tea?” And with that we were brought into the dark magnificence of their home.

Serving tea in times of discomfort and crisis is a long-standing cultural phenomenon in Great Britain. Author of A Social History of Tea, Bruce Richardson says, “Tea was the great ‘cheerer-upper’ of the war. Everyone from the Throne downward can attest that civilians and military alike turned instinctively to the solace of the kitchen teapot, mobile canteen urn, or an improvised trench-built billy-can.” By the time the world wars came around tea tax was down and demand was up. When the percussion of bombs could be heard of the horizon, and nuclear technology was reigning supreme, the tea kettle was whistling away on the hob. However, the tradition of serving tea in times of crisis may not just be for tradition and hospitality’s sake, in fact there is research that proves the calming effect of caffeinated tea. In a study published by NIH it was found that L-Theanine is found in psycho altering amounts in caffeinated teas. The report continues to say, “Caffeine and L-theanine are pharmacologically important constituents of tea, especially due to their effects on the central nervous system. The effects of these two compounds are opposite: While caffeine is a well-known stimulant, theanine has a relaxing effect.”. This study proves that there is a neurological phenomenon behind people’s consumption of tea during stress inducing times.

Journal entry 30 March, 2022.

As my mother and I helped my father hobble up the back steps of the house I felt all sorts of emotions: embarrassment at being such an intrusion as being seen as average hipsters with no class and prone to injury, a little self conscious on my americaness and harsh accent, delight at getting to see the inside of this lavishly designed house, and the feeling of disbelief when one gets to fulfill an unexpected dream (hey, I really like tea). Their old great dane named Posy greeted with her silky black body and guided us into the room. It was a darkly colored room with the old floors and paintings of some old guys portraits in ostentatious gold gilded frames. I perched myself on the edge of their rich leather sofa once my father was seated with his knee held by his hands. As my mother palpated his knee and asked him all her nurse questions, I started making some small talk with the expats (i.e. “what a lovely house you have here” in response: “It’s such a money pit” then silence). As the extension of tea that Laura had said outside was directed towards my father she now turned to me and said to my soul’s delight “Can I make you a cuppa tea, darling?” “Oh yes please, earl grey, please,” I was simply elated. After ten minutes of respite my father was able to get back in the car and I helped load the trailer the rest of the way, warm mug in hand, sipping the bergamot scented drink as coils of steam flowed up my nose.

I’ve always heard that apparently Americans brew tea all wrong and goodness I must concur that I am absolutely barbaric when it comes to brewing tea. The process must resemble how a troglodyte might try to construe lyrical sentences. Bashing the words up and not respecting their linguistic placement. I slosh some tepid tap water into the oily kettle, set it not on a hob (the stove of choice in Britain) but onto an electric range, bring the water to a screaming boil and slosh it violently into my mug. Before it has brewed thoroughly I put a wee bit of almond milk into the hot watery mess and sludge it down with the tea bag still in and all. According to the blog TeaHow, written by a professional tea sommelier, it confirms my suspicions on us Americans serving weak tea: “Americans favor a classic black, iced, light tea, consumed informally. [The] British favor a strong, hot, black blend of tea, sometimes formal or ceremonial. Tea cultivars are the same, so tea varieties are interchangeable. The social culture and method of serving are the main differences” Because most tea comes from only a handful of different countries the tea itself is the same. However, the methods of tea flavor extraction are altogether polar opposites. According to the Scottish Italian cook Christina Conte the difference between these teatime delights starts with the kettle. While American households typically have a metal teapot to put on the stove top, Brits prefer an electric kettle. Electric Kettles can boil 32oz of water much faster than a stovetop kettle which is much more efficient for those who drink tea more than two times per day. The next point of diversion is tea bags: where do they go? In America, as I did earlier, people usually will plop their lipton into the bottom of their “World’s Best Boss” mug, slosh that water on it and call it a day. However, in Britain, the tea bags go into yet another teapot, the boiling water from the kettle is poured over them, a tea cozy is snuggled around the pot for the brewing time to keep it warm and then the black gold is poured forth into mugs. Back when fragile china was used it was tradition to pour the milk (if desired) into the teacup first as to protect the china from the drastic temperature change. However, as that is not a concern any longer people have started the milk first or last debate which is all but absent from ‘merica’s tea culture. Break out some nibbles and the British cuppa is complete.

While Britain is not the only country to adore tea considering the nations in the East that discovered it long ago, the people’s love for it is undeniable. Their love for a midday cuppa is so effusive that it has detrimental implications for their electrical grid. In the documentary series Britain From Above by BBC it is revealed that after the popular show Eastenders credit's role there is an electrical pick up of approximately three gigawatts from 1.5 million kettles going on at the same time. The electric grid in Britain makes the approximately 100 million cups of tea consumed possible according to the UK Tea & Infusions Association. However, it was not always this way. According to the Britain Express, tea had been savored in China since the third millennium BCE. A spot of tea only became en vogue in the houses across the Thames 1657. This is when Portugal and The Netherlands began trading internationally with tea growing nations, as said in a blog from Chitracollection.com. As stated by Richardson, once again, the monarch to make the hot beverage explode in popularity was Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of King Charles. The popularity of the drink and the queen swept across the countryside all the way to the Atlantic. New Amsterdam’s (modern day New York) largest borough was named “Queens” after the tea loving Catherine.

I have gained many memories with tea over my eighteen years; varying from chinese tea ceremonies with a Dominican friend from Queens to getting to taste tea from a culture that cherishes it so much to nearly overload their electric grid. The latter was not worth my father falling off the trailer seeing he has just arrived back from knee surgery today after seven months with a torn ACL and meniscus. However, I know for certain that any memory with tea in it, be it made the British way, the Chinese way, or Bigelow in a thermos, will be the joy of that memory.



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