Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Liquid Jade"

Last night my culinary book club discussed Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West by Beatrice Hohenegger. I enjoyed reading the book -- I liked it well enough to send a copy to my friend Marianna in Berlin.

As I thought about the book before the meeting, I also went looking on the web for information about some of the missing cultures that drink tea -- Russia, Turkey, the Arab world were not represented in Liquid Jade. The author's choices about which countries to cover and which to omit came up in a variety of ways in our discussion.

I enjoyed the discussion even more than the reading. A strong shared impression about Liquid Jade was the sense that it broke into two parts with somewhat different approaches. The early chapters described the legendary discovery of tea, the development of tea growing, and the almost mystical view of tea drinking in China and Japan. These chapters had a much vaguer historic approach than the later chapters, which were more social and politically oriented, as well as describing the content and origin of tea varieties and how tea is processed for consumption. Even author's discussion of tea as a trade commodity is handled differently in the earlier and later parts of the book.

Several people had noticed that the author is a curator of an exhibit about tea, and to that activity attributed her concentration on the material culture of tea -- porcelain cups and saucers, tea pots, etc. Among the many many other books on tea, it was observed, some don't even mention these items, but concentrate on other aspects of tea history, varieties and tastes of tea, and tea-drinking tradition.

The author's politics (which I didn't know but one person said were very left wing) were held responsible for her drastically negative view of colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation of workers in the later chapters about the Opium Wars, the introduction of tea-growing to the British colonies of India and Ceylon, the rapacious traders, and the discussion on fair trade in modern agriculture. One response to this in our conversation was that no one could have a positive view of the way the British treated and viewed the "coolies" who worked in the colonial tea industry. We discussed the chapter on a letter from a high Chinese official to Queen Victoria, appealing to her sense of decency and asking her to drop the pushing of opium on the Chinese people. The response was the Opium War which destroyed the Chinese authority over the opium trade and had terrible consequences.

A number of personal stories about tea and our tea-drinking habits added a lot of interest to our discussion. The most amusing story was about a room-mate who wanted to make tea, but needed first some step-by-step instructions on how to boil water in a pot on the stove.

Two of the participants are avid tea drinkers -- one began to try different types of tea as a teenager, the other started with ordinary tea and now has a dedicated tea brewing apparatus, brews a variety of teas, uses distilled water, and has very decided ideas about the process. In connection with this, we engaged in some historic speculation about American availability of tea varieties, and the way that supermarkets in the 1950s reduced and standardized everyone's food -- and maybe tea -- choices.

Several other participants were moderate to indifferent tea drinkers, but had family stories. Two like me, with Russian-Jewish backgrounds, had memories that were corroborated by what I had read on the web and my own experience. Parents or grandparents drank tea from a glass or with jam, and some held a sugar cube in their teeth and strained the tea through it. My own father drank tea with the sugar cube between his teeth sometimes. When I was small, my mother made very strong essence of tea in a little teapot with a tea ball, diluting it with hot water when serving it -- which is what Russians do at the samovar and what orthodox Jews still do to avoid "cooking" on the sabbath. She later converted to tea bags.

One person (if I recall, he's from a typical American Kansas family) mentioned his grandmother's tea offerings: "We had cold Lipton and hot Lipton," he said, and the hot tea was always served with milk, the cold tea always sweetened. Several people mentioned being surprised that the book pointed out that iced tea is strictly American, though some mentioned foreign experiences where they had learned that even Canadians 30 years ago found iced tea utterly bizarre. Some mentioned southerners making tea with a huge amount of sugar, a practice now continued by McDonald's in their Sweet Tea (with 230 calories).

As I read, I also checked through some of my other books to see what I have about tea. I also thought about the sad and beautiful book Yasunari Kawabata's Thousand Cranes, in which the tea ceremony plays a role in creating the post-war atmosphere of loss of traditional culture and modernization.

This book about the tea ceremony in Japan was one example I found on my shelf.

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