Time for tea
Dec 2, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Now that the chilly air is settling in, tis the season for hot drinks. While there’s something special about hot cocoa, with its frothy marshmallows bobbing with each slurp, hot tea feels luxurious. 2020 has altered many of our beloved rituals, but it’s always time for tea. Making yourself a hot cup of tea is an act of self-care. Boiling the water, waiting with anticipation as the tea bag steeps, watching the cream or honey swirl happily, and taking that first cautious sip. It’s a delightful custom and the topic for this week’s feature. So pour yourself a cuppa and enjoy this brief tour of tea!
Like any long-standing tradition, tea’s origin story is shrouded in mystery. There are two main schools of thought: Chinese and Indian. The Chinese attribute the discovery to an Emperor (and part-time scientist) who, in the 1200s BC, was boiling water when a wayward leaf landed in his pot. Much like Newton’s fabled apple, this gravity-induced moment inspired him to learn more about the delicious brew. Thanks to this fateful moment, the medicinal power of tea was unlocked and the world would never be the same. For Indian scholars, tea’s roots are intertwined with Zen principles. An Indian saint, during a visit to China, meditated without sleep for nine years. Toward the end of his focused meditation he fell into a deep slumber. Distraught at his nodding off, he relieved himself of his eye lids and tea sprung up from the very spot to honor his dedicated pilgrimage.
Personally I gravitate more toward the Chinese theory (the Indian version is a bit too van Gogh for my taste!). Regardless of your belief, it’s a good bet that the tea phenomenon started in Asia. Tea’s breakout moment happened during the Tang Dynasty. While this era was relatively short-lived (just shy of three hundred years), it was a time of great progress and prosperity. Some refer to it as a golden age when cultural advancements reached a zenith. Pottery, painting, dancing, and other artistic endeavors were pursued with zeal. Anyone who was anyone drank tea. Entire books were written focused on the spiritual and physical benefits of tea. This old-school publicity paid off. In fact, tea became so popular in China special taxes were introduced (something that will sound familiar to some patriotic Bostonians hundreds of years later!).
Has all this talk of tea awakened your inner collector? Here’s a helpful article to get you started!
The tea craze traveled next to Japan and by the 17th century it arrived in Europe by way of Portugal. In England it was originally seen as a beverage most suited for the fairer sex, largely relegated to intimate household events. I was surprised to learn it took some time for the Brits to accept tea with open arms. But it wasn’t until the marriage of Charles II to the Portuguese beauty Catherine of Braganza, that tea became ingrained in British culture. It just goes to show how much sway the royal court held. Even though Catherine wasn’t popular, if the Queen wanted you to drink tea, you drank tea. Catherine did not have an easy time in her adopted land (to put it mildly) and I imagine holding onto her tea time ritual helped her cope. The legacy of tea as an act of self-care is just as true for royalty as it is for us common folk.
So it’s no wonder that as tea ventured beyond the hallowed halls of the palace court it found its place in the fashionable sitting rooms of 18th century England. In the days before Netflix or YouTube, entertaining was much more interactive. The saying is true, sometimes you have to make your own fun. For this generation, garden tea parties were the way to have fashionable fun. Hosts would invite their female and male friends, book some entertainers and sip the day away. Fast-forward another hundred or so years and the afternoon tea party was a staple. Curious about the etiquette of a proper afternoon tea? Check out this article.
A big part of the pomp and circumstance of afternoon tea is the pot itself. While the kettle is the worker bee of the tea celebrations, the pot is the glam squad. Since it doesn’t have to contend with direct heat, it can be delicate and decorative. If you’ve ever wondered why porcelain became the material of choice, the answer is less romantic and more logistic. Porcelain wasn’t prone to damage by salty sea water so the East India Company could store them easily in their ships and they marketed them as a “must-have” accessory. Decorated with rich hues and natural motifs, they were often accompanied by matching saucers, cups, and sugar bowls. (If you wanted a milk pitcher, you had to wait until the 19th century!) The East India Company’s “tea party in a box” was a big success – party planners couldn’t get enough of them! Fair warning: if you get the chance to travel back in time and pick up one of these boxes, the pots themselves look quite a bit different from the ones we know today. Tea was trendy, but it was still expensive. The small stature of the pots spoke to this economic reality. Maybe that’s why to this day we’re encouraged to take delicate sips and savor the flavor, because every drop was precious to our forefathers.
As we sit here today, hundreds of years since the debut of the first tea party, the comfort we find in this hot drink is unchanged. So perhaps we can all borrow a page from the history books and relish each drop like a Victorian (even if we host our parties over Zoom rather than in a garden). Tell me, dear reader, what cozy drinks are you looking forward to this holiday season?