How It Is With Tea and Me

The Wine Bibber's Bible , which enjoyed a surprising success. I was second to none in enthusiasm for my newfound profession as a wine critic and the good life surrounding it, but I eventually proved unequal to the sacrifice of sobriety required. Wine, once my friend and beloved, turned into my deadliest enemy. With no expectation of ever again finding her equal, I turned to tea, as much out of despair as self-defense.

Tea is quiet, and it takes a quiet palate to appreciate something that calls so little attention to itself. At first it was simply a fluid safe to drink in quantities and therefore suitable for a compulsive drinker such as myself. Tea gives you something to do and satisfied my need for ritual observances, occupying my hands not with glass and corkscrew but objects still more pleasurable to handle, hold, and behold.

Importantly, I found it is a social drink to share and create occasions with friends. After many months my alcohol-ravaged sensibilities also began to notice that tea, while no intoxicant, most definitely produces a high all its own—a state of heightened alertness, of tranquility and freedom from care, of ruddy cheeks and sparkling conversation. Tea exhilarates. Tea's taste was perhaps its last attribute to come to my attention, but I gradually realized there are at least as many teas as wines in this world and began thinking of teas in the plural.

All this time my long-suffering publisher was phoning regularly to ask what I was writing and, just as regularly, I would answer, "Writing? I'm just drinking tea." Finally she shot back, "Well for God's sake, write about that!" I agreed at once. The parallels between wine and tea had already occurred to me—both are agricultural products that can aspire to become works of art, not to mention the wares, geography, customs, economics, and history common to both. Besides, if I wanted a good book on the subject I would have to write it, I already knew. The Tea Lover's Treasury eventually appeared in 1982, with an introduction that the late M.F.K. Fisher kindly contributed. I shall always cherish the judgment she passed on my work: "Norwood Pratt's book about tea is written so deftly, in its heady combination of learning and pure love, that its pages will cheer us long after what's in the cup is cold and stale." In the course of writing it I learned to taste tea as I had wine, with attention and growing devotion. Teas are the subtlest tastes our tongues can detect, I realized, for tea does not even have a taste but rather just an effect, like the wind.

These sentences you are reading are the fruit 30 years of tea life have borne. They will overflow with lore I never knew before and which, come to think of it, few besides me know now. Very little of it will interest most people, but if you have read this far you may be one of the happy few for whom this work is intended, one of the ancient and world-wide cult to which we lovers of tea belong. We have never made any secret of our esoteric rituals or of those sonorous passwords to pleasure, the names of our favorite teas. But we seek abiding pleasure, not instant gratification, and most in this world have no time for these mysteries. In every generation, apparently, ours has been a self-elected coterie. There's no question of our being elitist—a tea lover who is not elitist fares poorly. This is why we are thought as a group so very particular, fussy, snobbish. We are.

And, in posts to come, I'll tell you why.

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Our less-than-prim Penelope had lived in Edenton on the coast of North Carolina during the last excitement that erstwhile colonial capital had experienced since the sinking of Black Beard, a leading local entrepreneur from a previous generation. It was the pre-Revolutionary year 1773, when Americans the length of the Atlantic seaboard were being asked to weigh their love of tea against their love of country.

Boston was not alone in the staging of patriotic tea parties, but history quickly forgot the tea protests of that autumn and winter at Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, Annapolis, and Greenwich. The tale of Penelope Barker's tea party at Edenton has survived, however, handed down in our family along with the very pot that was present for the occasion. Generations of children have been suitably impressed by this big old pot and by Mrs. Barker's phrase, "the Pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea."

After a farewell cup, 50 of the Albemarle's foremost ladies swore, in Penelope's own words, "not to Conform to the Pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea, until such time as all Acts which tend to enslave our Native Country shall be repealed ... and we do therefore accordingly subscribe this Page." Whenever the ancient pot appeared, we were told once again how Mrs. Barker got the ladies to sign "this Page" which she had sent to a London newspaper in confident expectation of creating a sensation in England. Only a few months later, however, some anonymous New Englander fired "the shot heard round the world," and with a prenatal disinclination for tea our Republic began struggling to be born. We imagined this was all largely Mrs. Barker's doing, and aided by her large vocabulary. Hot tea from her pot tasted better, I still think, because it was "Pernicious."