How It Is With Tea and Me

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Starting with family meals, iced tea figures large in every picture that comes back to me from my childhood. In the background but there, always there—after church the day Redge Hanes and I caught the snake, or when we were visiting on front porches, or when we came in from playing or looked up from reading. The Chinese sage who called tea one of "the seven necessities" for daily life could have come from North Carolina.

North Carolinians don't need to be told that our state is named for the first tea drinker to occupy the British throne: we have commemorated his example almost every day since our beginnings, and with tea have composed some of the more peculiar pages of our history. In my own family, successive generations of womenfolk have disputed custody of a so-called Penelope Barker tea service, not always civilly. This handsome old silver pot and its companion pieces were once the possessions of our most notorious ancestor on the Barker side, a thrice-married and thrice-widowed forerunner of Scarlett O'Hara invariably known to us, her posterity, as "Mrs. Barker." (For the story of why we were quite so proud of her notoriety, I hope you'll consult the end of this article.)

It sometimes seems to me that I must have inherited a special relationship with the miracle of vegetation that has become the theme of all my writing. Both my life and my forebears' seem fairly steeped in tea. Like "iced tea," "hot tea" was always one word in the South—we seldom heard the noun unmodified. Properly made, hot tea was a wintertime experience, or something that happened when one lay abed feverish and frightened by those mysterious sensations illness creates in us in childhood. It was still a lemon­and-sugar affair; I'm not sure anybody had ever heard of adding milk instead. The only tea lore commonly acknowledged was that the best was from First Colony, in Norfolk. Carolinians and Virginians had sworn by First Colony tea for generations, and it was believed that the firm's founder had supplied tea to Queen Victoria.

The poetry of tea, with its great evocative syllables like "oolong" and "Darjeeling," I discovered at Chapel Hill. The University of North Carolina was a comparatively small, overwhelmingly male school at that time, and the Honors Program, to which I was admitted, was known as "Suicide 50" on account of the Herculean labors we 50 let ourselves in for. A student obtained the professors' permission to join these fast-track classes by getting invited to tea to be looked over and sized up. When I was asked by the tweediest and most intimidating of the whole Anglophile lot, "Are you a Darjeeling man?" I replied without missing a beat, "No sir, I'm from Forsyth County." To associate that name with that flavor was the first lesson he taught me and the one I still remember best. Besides the never-to-be-forgotten Darjeeling, I left school having at least heard of names like Formosa Oolong and Assam. On a whim I immigrated to San Francisco, looked around, and saw that it was good. It was September 1965.

NEXT: A tea expert discovers his calling

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James Norwood Pratt's Tea Dictionary was named the Best New Publication of 2010 at the World Tea Expo. He has served as honorary director of Imperial Tea Court and as international juror of India's first-ever tea competition.

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