5 years ago
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
The Meaning of Tea is a film, a book and a growing cottage industry created by Scott Chamberlin Hoyt. The feature-length documentary has been methodically making the rounds since its 2008 premiere, followed by a book of transcribed interviews from the film, plus a CD of the film's music, an extra short film and possibly more to come. It's Hoyt's first film; his previous experience, perhaps no surprise, is rooted in his business degrees.
I've been meaning to write about these projects for almost a year. I've wrestled with them. I’ve nurtured a love-hate relationship with them (the love is winning). The mission of Hoyt’s project strikes very close to my heart, to the mission of this blog. I’m not overly interested in reviewing teas here; the critical faculty is usually the last thing I want to bring to the tea moment. I’m also interested in, yes, the meaning of tea. But I still don’t really know what that … means. And, in tea as in many other things, I’m naturally skeptical of anyone who attempts to pin a name on the unnameable. Thankfully — as I discovered in an interview yesterday morning with Hoyt — he had no such delusions when he set out to create a film of surprising grandeur.
The book came to me first, and I was immediately concerned. The text comprises the transcripts of interviews conducted for the film with some cursory connective tissue in the form of a few florid introductory essays and some fairly disposable prose at the beginning of each geographical section (India, Morocco, Japan, etc.). Transcripts being transcripts, there’s no real narrative to the book. It's great supplemental material to the film, but it's a lot to take in on its own. The reader has to drink a lot of average tea, as it were, to filter out the good bits. I decided not to comment until I’d seen the film, seen what portions of all these words the filmmaker would present on screen as his narrative. It’s the editor in me: Don’t give me your notes, give me your story.
The film succeeds by beautifully failing to define the meaning of tea. I swear that’s a compliment. Explaining the meaning of tea is the proverbial task of nailing smoke to a wall. If Hoyt had concluded something definitive, I would have been disappointed. The film (a good review here) is a colorful, slightly abstract quilt, knitted together from the commentary and impressions of everyday teafolk around the world. We hear from tea growers and tea sellers and tea drinkers — common people, which is important; it’s almost a Howard Zinn approach to tea! — about what tea means to them. The answers are different enough to be interesting and similar enough to be engaging. The film ultimately succeeds by allowing readers to drift in and out of the locales and draw their own conclusions.
My conversation with Hoyt, via telephone from his New York City office, was illuminating, particularly on the philosophical front. Here’s a portion of our Q&A:
t2: Your first film is all about tea. So how’d you first greet tea? Any revelatory moments?
Hoyt: I have no specific memory of the first time I encountered tea. Like most people living in this country, I grew up with iced tea. I never had much of a sweet tooth. I used to love drinking iced tea in the summertime, but I never put sugar into it. A little lemon, maybe. And I had tea and toast when I was not feeling well as a child. I liked the feeling it induced in my body. I liked being clear and calm and energized. But there were no revelations, nothing spectacular.
t2: Surely it had to start somewhere? Did something else lead you to tea?
Hoyt: I went to high school in Vermont, and I was very fortunate to be in a school that offered French and Chinese. I opted for Chinese and — this goes back to the summer of 1969 — and in addition to being exposed to Chinese characters, [a friend] and I embarked on an independent study of the Tao Te Ching, approved by the administration. It was just the two of us over two semesters, and we translated up to chapter 25 character by character. Being exposed to that … had to be part of my connection to tea.
t2: And that stuck with you?
Hoyt: Yeah. I just did a book review of The Way of Tea. One thing that occurred to me while reading the book and reflecting on things written about mind-altering plant substances is that tea, like others, is what religious scholar Houston Smith refers ot as entheogens. It’s a word he coined as an alternative to “psychedelic.” He says these are “virtually non-addictive, mind-altering substances that are approached seriously and reverently,” the inference being that these substances can induce a religious experience, an encounters with the gods, something very deep. … Tea is one of these that aids us in that process, but we don’t gain that or have that experience unless we take time to slow down and encourage some kind of ritual. It has a lot to do with taking time and listening.
t2: It’s all about taking time out, isn’t it?
Hoyt: Taking time is the approach to tea. You have to slow down and do nothing but make the tea and enjoy that process. And it is a process. You don’t just flick on the light switch or boot up the computer to get there. And it doesn’t happen every time. … But the idea behind the Tao is to change with the changes. Slowing down and drinking tea allows us to observe what’s in us and around us, and to become one with the tea.
t2: And you feel you found that in the film?
Hoyt: Yes, because we told the story of ordinary people. The Taoists revered ordinary people. If you listen to the most ordinary people, you will find the sage. That’s one of the reasons I went to Tea, South Dakota.
t2: I was going to ask about that. It seems like an odd distraction in the middle of your story.
Hoyt: I’d been thinking of taking a tour of the heartland for six or seven years to understand the meaning of tea there, and in doing research I discovered there was this town called Tea — and the town was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. We were filming there during that anniversary celebration. We went there to get a slice of life and show how ordinary people reflected on what tea meant in their lives. We went to older people in the community, figured they’d have memories of a world operating at a slower pace. They were all very excited to have us there. The really had the spirit of tea — aspirit of generosity.
t2: And I have to ask about another location, or lack of it. You feature some folks in Taiwan. But why make a film about tea, travel the world making it, but not go to mainland China?
Hoyt: It was mostly logistics. I had a great production coordinator from Taiwan who knew where to go and who to talk to there. I simply didn’t know anyone who could take us all over China, which is a big place. It was cheaper and I thought more effective to travel in one place. I would have liked to have gone many other places, too. We went to India, but only to Darjeeling. I would have loved to have gone to the Caucasus.
Next up for Hoyt: a documentary about a Vermont herb farm, which he says he sees as an extension of his interest in tea — one useful plant to some others. He’s also developing a line of teas.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Sunday, March 28, 2010
This weekend we enjoyed a Saturday afternoon lunch on Chicago's famed Devon Avenue, which features several blocks of Indian restaurants and shops. After stuffing myself with chana masala and chai, we wandered into one of the food markets. In the tea aisle, I found a few interesting items, including ... pink tea?
It's a plastic jar of green tea leaves, labeled "Kashmiri Pink Tea." The pink part comes from a complicated preparation process, detailed on a poorly printed and folded piece of pink paper just under the lid. The recipe is basically a different take on chai using, of all things, baking soda.
I tried this out today, melding the pidgin English of the jar's instructions (which call for "backing powder") with some recipes found online (like this one, this one and mainly this one). I used two pots. In one, I boiled water and added the green tea, along with some crushed cardamom and a pinch of salt. After this boiled down a bit — and become a strong, dark green tea — I added half a teaspoon of baking soda, plus a half cup of cold water. The pot fizzed, and the tea went noticeably reddish. The power of chemistry. While that simmered a while longer, I heated milk, ground nuts and a cinnamon stick. In the end, both were strained and poured together (like the Malaysian teh tarik makers). The result: a strong chai, surprisingly smooth, with a bitter underpinning.
And, yes, it was kinda pink. (Some recipes include pink food coloring, which is just cheating.) But it's not something so delicious that I'll be going through all this rigamarole again. Unless you come over and ask for some pink tea.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
I've just finished reading a doozy of a novel: Anathem by one of my top-5 favorite writers, Neal Stephenson. You could call it sci-fi, I guess (others apply the term "speculative fiction"). It's a typically ambitious, sprawling text, jam-packed with modern philosophy, science and mathematics. The core of the narrative deals with the parallel universe theories of quantum mechanics. But it's a fun read. Really.
Long summation short: The book follows some monastic scientists on a distant (maybe) planet that winds up being visited by a craft from ... well, somewhere. When the two main characters finally make it to the spaceship to meet the "aliens," what do you think they offer them for their first-contact chat? Of course ...
Fraa Jad answered in a shrewdly noncommittal way by saying, "Then I have come to bid you welcome." ...
"Please," the man said, "we have tea. A purely symbollic offering, since your bodies can do nothing with it, but ..."
"We shall be pleased to drink your tea," Fraa Jad said.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Well, how delightful is this?
This is Katzenjammer, four ridiculously talented women (playing 16 instruments between them) from Norway. Look for their debut album in the States, "Le Pop," coming June 1. And they'll be on the revived Lilith Fair this summer.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Cooking Light magazine has a fairly new feature near the front called "The Editor's Dozen," spotlighting 12 nifty items, books, ingredients, what have you that have impressed the staff or at least piqued their curiosity. This month's edition just happens to be loaded with several really cool, tea-related things ...
Like beautiful graphic tea towels from Studio Patro (check out the web site, great design, cool stuff) ...
The prints include bold leaves, variations on the letter T, peace symbols, the word "wanderlust" and more. Gimme, gimme!
I'm also in love with this Martha Stewart dinnerware, Hudson and Classic Band mix-and-match available at Macy's, including nicely weighted mugs and saucers ...
(Word of warning: Martha has recalled some of her teapots.)
And finally, here's my pick from the cool line of lacquer serving trays designed by Pacific Connections ...
They have a few dozen designs, including a bolder Mondrian pattern, but I like the softer pastels of this urban flair.
The magazine feature also included some artfully photographed matcha tea powder, hawking one of the $69 five-piece sets from matchasource.com (great starter kit or gift) ...
Friday, March 19, 2010
I still wear a yin-yang ring. It’s an affectation I adopted as a teen around the same time a friend of mine and I were tossing coins for the I Ching (“Should I ask Ashley to the dance?” … hey, Dave, what does “auspicious” mean?). My interest in all things Taoist was easily nourished amid by dull Methodist upbringing. Over the years I devoured the Tao Te Ching (thank you, Stephen Mitchell) and moved on to Chuang-tzu and the other masters. I think this is my fourth yin-yang ring, and every so often it fulfills its purpose: reminding me of life’s natural balance, and that my life should be in harmony with it.
Cha Dao: The Way of Tea, Tea as a Way of Life is a fine Taoist primer — with the added addition of a tea infusion. Author Solala Towler (who, for some reason, spells the Tao and Taoism phonetically throughout his book as Dao and Daoism) swings between anecdotes of Taoism and stories of teaism in an effort to describe a very Taoist concept: "tea mind." That is, “a way of being in the world, a way of living a life of grace and gratitude, of being able to see the sacred in the seemingly mundane.” This is the heart of Taoism, and also — if everyone is in the right frame of mind — the experience produced by a cup of tea.
Towler fortunately stops short of turning the simple cup of tea into some kind of religious experience even while acknowledging that the Chinese tea ceremony developed into a ritual that “took the simple art of drinking tea to a sacred level.” He refers to the "timeless time of tea." Towler dabbles in simple and complex concepts, and though his narrative is choppy and his scholarship sometimes questionable (Wikipedia as a source? really?!), he proves to be an effective guide through Lao-tzu's wilderness, even ably explaining the challenging idea of wu wei — the concept of “doing nothing” (which is not the same as apathy, nor is it the opposite of ambition).
The act of preparing and sharing tea, or taking it alone, causes us to slow down, step out of the world a bit. It's a reminder, like my yin-yang ring, that the world is not everything, that we are best and most at peace when we are, as Towler reminds us, "in the world but not of it." A wise old man in one of Towler's related parables says, "I find that when I get anxious or stressed, all it takes is a good cup of tea to make things right again. That is, if I truly relax and allow the tea to do its work on my soul."
In the end, Towler writes, in describing a Toaist tea ceremony: “‘Daoists follow nature,’ said the [tea] master, ‘and so Daoists like tea because it comes from nature. Tea is the flavor of the Dao.’”
Thursday, March 18, 2010
No small surprise that Charles Darwin, while formulating his theories of evolution, sipped his share of tea.
There was much ballyhoo last year as the world (science-loving folk, anyway) observed the anniversary of Darwin's birth and his publication of The Origin of Species. (Hey, hey, someone even came up a Darwinian cocktail — containing white tea!) Here are several scientists sitting down in front of a very staged, never-touched cup to talk about what they would ask Darwin if they were sharing a pot in the tea room at Down House:
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Finally saw "Alice In Wonderland" this weekend. Wish I hadn't. It's dreadfully drab and dull, an aimless narrative jacked up on 21st century special effects. A few good lines about tea, but nothing to get excited about.
So here's a pleasant but equally aimless little instrumental with a hilariously lengthy and grammatically dangling title: "There Was a Table Set Out Under a Tree in Front of the House and the March Hare and the Mad Hatter Were Having a Tea at It":
Monday, March 15, 2010
t2 reader Lucia, in Rome, forwarded some interesting information this weekend about tea being grown in Italy. I knew that tea was grown commercially in the Azores, just off the coast of Portugal, and that used to be the only production of tea within Europe. But now there are experiments to grow tea in England, and apparently they've been dabbling in tea nurseries for centuries in Italy. This article and this one (both PDFs) tell the tale of tea in Tuscany. More info here, too. (Thanks, Lucia!)
Tea production in the United States is active mostly at the Bigelow plantation in South Carolina and numerous new small growers in Hawaii. Some folks have even tried growing it in Washington state.
The postscript of Sarah Rose's new book about Robert Fortune's tea travels includes the fact that, in his later years, he was briefly employed by the U.S. government in 1857 to assess whether or not tea could grow here. He considered sites in Virginia, the Appalachias and the Carolinas. He then traveled back to China for tea seeds, which he sent to the U.S. Patent Office. They then fired him, thinking they could pursue the matter themselves. But the Civil War interrupted the research. "Although there were a few more attempts at establishing an American tea industry," Rose reports, "it died stillborn."
Sunday, March 14, 2010
I'm a criminal. So are you. Everyone reading this blog because they enjoy tea — we're all accomplices, in a roundabout way, to international corporate espionage. Tea, and the knowledge to process it, was outright stolen from China by Robert Fortune, the subject of For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, by Sarah Rose.
In the mid-1800s, China was in complete control of tea. They had the plants, they made the tea, they set the price. And for a long time, the British East India Company had a monopoly on buying that tea from China and selling it to the rest of the world. Add to that, Britain had become dependent on tea, not only because, as Rose writes, "tea rapidly became a favorite way among the upper classes to signify civility and taste in the chilly, wet climate of Britain," but because "tea taxes funded railways, roads and civil service salaries, among the many other necessities of an emergent industrial nation." But the company lost that monopoly by 1834 and stood to lose a fortune when others got in on the tea trade. They would stand to gain, however, if they weren't relying on China for the tea — if they could grow their own. They already controlled most of India, where (it was later discovered) the tea plant originated. All they need was some tea plants and someone to tell them how to process the results.
The catch: China was completely closed to foreigners. Britain had just whupped them in the first opium war, so they weren't exactly friendly to Europeans. But in 1848, the British East India Company charged Fortune, an ambitious botanist from Scotland, with the task of sneaking into China and stealing tea plants. And we're not just talking about throwing a few seedlings into a gunny sack and jumping back aboard a clipper; Fortune made two journeys into the interior of China — in disguise — to dig up, package and haul out several hundred tea plants, plus convincing some Chinese tea makers to join him and bring their knowledge to the West. And he was largely successful.
Sounds like a setup for a swashbuckling, Indiana Jones adventure, and it might have been. Rose's account of the trip doesn't exactly get the heart racing, which is likely due more to the sparse historical record. Rose is better about discussing the journey's context, significance and impact. Twice she frames the discussion in modern terms, discussing this as what it was: a transfer of technology and intellectual property theft. She also gets to the nitty gritty of making tea, pointing out that Fortune's work in learning about tea at one particular Buddhist monastery "would also affect how every pot of tea would be prepared in the future."
It's a well-researched book with plenty to offer tea enthusiasts from several angles, from history to travelogue. "By the time the Chinese realized that Fortune had stolen an inestimable treasure from them," she concludes, "it was many years too late to remediate their loss. His theft helped spread tea to a wider world at lower prices. He democratized a luxury, and the world has been enjoying it ever since."
Now I want to read Fortune's actual journals, which Rose quotes on occasion, including observations like this as he stumbled through the Chinese countryside:
We find tea one of the necessities of life in the strictest sense of the word. A Chinese never drinks cold water, which he abhors and considers unhealthy. Tea is his favourite beverage from morning until night; not what we call tea, mixed with milk and sugar, but the essence of the herb itself drawn out in pure water. One acquainted with the habits of this people can scarcely conceive the idea of the Chinese Empire existing were it deprived of the tea plant; and I am sure that the extensive use of this beverage adds much to the health and comfort of the great body of the people.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
The Chicago Tribune published a story this week that I love for a couple of reasons. First, it leads with an anecdote from Tony Gebely, who just launched the Chicago Tea Garden (some details here). Secondly, it gets at the heart of a real quandary for most tea lovers right now. That is: We have tea parties, but we may not be Tea Partiers.
Purveyors of fine tea and tea enthusiasts in general find themselves steeped in a linguistic shift, their beloved beverage now associated with a conservative political movement routinely praised or pilloried on talk radio and cable news shows. The tea party movement's name, a reference to the tax protests that led to the Revolutionary War, has nothing, really, to do with tea. But that doesn't seem to matter.
Doesn't matter to them. Matters to those of us who care a little something about tea. I'm fending off more jokes about it these days. "Oh, you like tea? Does that mean you're a crazy Republican?" Ha ha. I've also had to adjust my online news alerts and a few RSS feeds. A simple Google news alert for "tea" now turns up nothing but articles by pundits trying to make sense of whether or not these boobs have any impact and announcements of gatherings in which they whine a lot but provide no concrete alternative political strategies. (I now search for "tea -party" to filter out most of the politics.) The second post on this blog, almost a year ago, addressed the confusion. And it has only gotten worse.
One thing's for certain, I think. If these people drank more tea, or any, they'd calm down and see things much more clearly.
Sipping a cup of king-grade Tie Guan Yin tea in his Naperville shop, Robertson, the tea importer, took a politically neutral stance on the movement. He did, however, wonder whether tea party members might be calmer if they drank something better than tea made with the cheap tea bags they hoist at protests and mail off to politicians.
"I worry that they're drinking bad tea," Robertson said. "They don't know how to relax. If you just sit back and have a good cup of tea and talk, things tend to work out."
UPDATE: Oh, get this. Now some frustrated liberals are trying to counter the Tea Party folks by creating ... wait for it ... the Coffee Party. Leave our beverages out of this, please!
ANOTHER UPDATE: This story angle is catching on. AP tackled it now, quoting Steepster folks and more. Read it here.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Monday, March 8, 2010
Sunday, March 7, 2010
You know your chain is too big when your primary competitor has become McDonald's. That's what's happened now to Starbucks, which is test marketing a new size of beverage in the face of Mickey D's attempt to undercut Seattle's best.
Some McDonald's are selling 32-ounce iced teas for a buck, trying to lure customers to their new McCafe coffee and tea offerings. Starbucks is countering by adding a size to its menu. In addition to tall, grande and venti, Starbucks is testing out the new Trenta, a 31-ounce monster cup of iced tea ($2.60) or iced coffee ($3.30). The test markets are Phoenix and Tampa — warm places where a Big Gulp of tea might not sound so ridiculous.
How quickly we forget. I remember when I lived south of the Mason-Dixon, most restaurants served iced tea in ginormous cups, with two shovels of ice cubes and half a lemon. Even in winter.
Jamba Juice is trying hot, tea-based drinks again. Last week they trotted out new chai and tea latte options, plus six different Mighty Leaf teas. An A for effort, but they fall seriously short of the last hot tea drinks they tried. Both blends I sampled last week seemed purely powdered. I opted for soy in both, and despite this being a shop that has actual soy milk available for its smoothie drinks, my server both times seemed to add only powdered ingredients to the hot water before blending it. Boo.
The chai tastes fine, though I agree with another reviewer: It's an odd seasonal flavor to debut in March. The Heavenly Green tastes like decent matcha, but again — powdery. Sigh.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
"[I am] a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has, for twenty years, diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnight, and, with tea, welcomes the morning."
— Samuel Johnson
He wasn't kidding. According to James Boswell's biography of the wise and clever Johnson, "No person ever enjoyed with more relish the infusion of that fragrant leaf than Johnson. The quantities which he drank of it at all hours were so great, that his nerves must have been uncommonly strong."
The painter Joshua Reynolds once saw Johnson drink 11 cups — in one evening — and remarked on it. Johnson got defensive: "Sir, I did not count your glasses of wine, why should you number up my cups of tea?"
(via a reader)
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Got an email this afternoon from a friend. I was in the middle of a busy day, so was she. Like, crushing, crazy, full-court-press busybusybusy. And then she dropped in with this:
"Hey Thomas! I was sitting in an epic meeting today ... mind wandering ... when I noticed a quote on the back of my trader joe's tea packet:
'There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea. — Bernard Heroux, 1900s Basque philosopher"
Truer words, never spake, etc. etc. So I got up, shook off the overly complicated map project I was immersed in, and got a cup of tea. (Loving this Himalayan Black from Ineeka — their clever little bags are great for the office.) I leaned over the tea as the water went in, smelled the fragrance as if it was wafting in directly from Darjeeling. I tasted the brisk, lively brew. Eyebrows: raised. Spirits: up. Overly complex map project: I can do this.
That is a tea moment, right there. Thank you, Nancy, for that much-needed reminder.
Monday, March 1, 2010
I read all the Agatha Christie mysteries when I was young, but I somehow didn't get hooked on the whole mystery genre. A few years ago, with the help of a cup of tea, I found my way back in. Laura Childs writes a series of mystery novels set in a Charleston tea shop — the sleuth is the shop's affable owner, Theodosia Browning — and aside from the accumulation of dead bodies in the neighborhood the stories are each delightful romps. We get a murder in the first chapter, an apprehension in the final chapter, and a lot of lingering in the tea shop, discussing tea and humid Southern atmosphere in between.
The 11th in the series is published Tuesday, The Teaberry Strangler. I caught up with Childs (real name: Gerry Schmitt) this weekend; here's part of our conversation about tea:
Q. What was your road into tea?
A. My husband teaches Chinese and Japanese art history, and once I married him in 1985 I started traveling in Asia with him. In Taiwan, in Japan, I really got into tea. It's hard not to. I started buying more of it and loved it. I still don't know much about it.
Q. After all these years?
A. Well, every time I learn something new about tea, I realize there's still so much I don't know. It's like turning a corner and realizing there's still so much further to go.
Q. But you've found a fun vehicle to travel in, and pass along what you know to others.
A. I hope so. It's gratifying to receive hundreds of emails a month in which people say, "I only drank Lipton, and your books have inspired me to buy tea laves and try more kinds of tea."
Q. In those travels, as you began to discover tea, was there a tea moment — one ah-ha experience that set you on this path?
A. Actually, there was. We were traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto on a bullet train on Christmas Day, and we went by a tea plantation. It was absolutely stunning. This beautiful, green terraced garden went right up the side of the mountain, and in the background was Mt. Fuji. I was reading a book and my husband said, "Look up, dear." I gasped, and I wanted to run out and taste the tea being grown right there in this heavenly garden. My husband said, "Merry Christmas!"
Q. And did Japanese green teas become your favorites?
A. I really do like the kind of toasty flavor of Bancha.
Q. It seems like you began the tea-shop series (about nine years ago) at just the right time. Were you aware of the rising market for tea and expanding interest in it here, or did you just get lucky?
A. The tea-shop mystery series is still the most successful, wildly. For some reason, I hit this tsunami wave of interest in tea. At the time I started, tea shops were starting to pop up like mushrooms all over the country. The whole tea thing really took off. It's now what coffee was in the ’90s. Even Starbucks and Caribou have gone into tea seriously. ... I was lucky to hit the trend as it was growing, and it's probably still growing.
I'll be writing more about Childs' tea mystery series — she also writes a line of scrapbooking mysteries, and a new line centered around a Midwestern cafe — later for the Sun-Times. The Teaberry Strangler is out this week, and it's another fun read.