Tea for You
Having been brought up English, I was a tea drinker from an early age. But I didn’t realize that I was actually an addict, until my doctor told me to cut out all caffeine from my diet. Only then did I learn what is meant by “withdrawal symptoms” – which in my case were very bad headaches. Fortunately, they didn’t last more than a few days. That was some years ago, when decaffeinated tea was available only in specialty teashops.
Today I still drink tea – but only the decaf kind, which is, happily, now to be easily found in your local supermarket – as decaf coffee has been for generations. (Did you know that the name Sanka comes from “Sans Caffeine”?) So, there must now be many of us, including the medical profession, who have (forgive the expression) woken up to this particular health hazard.
And of course, it’s not only in liquids that this menace lurks. Very dark chocolate can render the nerves of those of us who are susceptible just as jangled as if they were jumpy on java.
How did all this get started? According to one account, it goes back to the primitive Central Asian horsemen of Genghis Khan who, when mare’s milk was in short supply, or when they tired of drinking blood drawn from their own steeds, discovered that the boiling of leaves culled from certain bushes they encountered made a passable brew. Just how it made the great leap eastward to Japan and westward to Britain and her American colonies I will leave to your historical imagination. What we all know, however, is that tea had something to do with the American Revolution – that the slogan “No Taxation Without Representation” stemmed from a tax on tea – and that the “Boston Tea Party” was no party that any refined ladies would have wished to be seen at.
For better or worse, it was a bad feeling about tea, originating in the Revolution, that turned Americans into coffee drinkers. It seems to have been only recently that the prejudice has subsided, and tea has once again become a respectable beverage on this side of the ocean. But meanwhile, teapots have in large degree been replaced, or at least supplemented, by that questionable creation, the teabag, which may have its advantages, but which entails the problem of what to do with a soggy bag of wet tealeaves. Not till I was in Australia a few years ago did I discover at least a partial answer to this perplexity, a sort of oversized tweezers called a tea-bag squeezer.
But there is something about the act of drinking tea with others which lends itself to a ceremonializing of the occasion. The Japanese have elaborated this simple ritual to an amazing extent. Even the British, however, take inordinate pleasure in the preparation and consumption of the mandatory “cuppa,” at precisely prescribed times of day. “Tea” can mean not just a drink, but a meal, and a “High Tea” is something even more substantial.
Then of course there are the questions of what do you put in the tea? To the British, the only traditional choices were milk and/or sugar. Nowadays the matter is much more complex, with a whole range of “creamers” and “sweeteners,” all usually boasting of their non-nutritive value.
And, as any observant shopper must be aware, there is a wide range of different kinds of tea – not just the standard “black” or “green” teas – which themselves have numerous sub-varieties – but vastly varied offerings of so-called herbal teas, which may or may not contain any manner of stimulants. In fact, I doubt whether there is any legal definition of “tea,” so your company can concoct any kind of infusion you like, and call it “tea.” Just ask the people at Celestial Seasonings.
Then there are all kinds of tea-making devices, from the traditional Samovar, without which no truly Russian home would be complete, to a wide range of modern contraptions. And there is iced tea, which to me has always had as little appeal as “warm” British beer has for most Americans.
Next to water, tea is the most widely consumed drink in the world. Yet there are remarkably few popular songs about it – and only one, that I know of, linking tea with love. It was in a 1924 Broadway show called No No Nanette that the world was first charmed by the beautiful simplicity of:
Upon my knee,
Just tea for two
And two for tea.