Every nation in creation has its favourite drink
France is famous for its wine, it's beer in Germany
Turkey has its coffee and they serve it blacker than ink
Russians go for vodka* and England loves its tea

There is a strange Japanese legend surrounding the origin of tea. I first encountered this story years ago in my Organic Chemistry class (of all places!) and never forgot it. The Indian monk Bodhidharma was the guy who founded Zen Buddhism and took it to China. According to the legend, Bodhidharma could sit in meditation for years on end. Once, after several years of keeping this up, he fell asleep. So, to stay awake and show his dedication, he cut off his eyelids (aiee!). Where they fell, the first tea bushes grew.

Oogy old folk tales aside, it scarcely needs stating that tea is powerful stuff. In picking five of the most important crops in history for his extraordinary book Seeds of Change; Five Plants that Transformed Mankind historian Henry Hobhouse chose tea as one of them—the others were sugar, quinine, cotton and potatoes.

The Chinese have loved tea for thousands of years and they spread their fascination with the drink to Japan, Southeast Asia and the Moslem countries of the Middle East (where a religious prohibition against drinking alcohol made tea an ideal choice). In 1580, traders from Portugal picked up the tea habit, making them the first European tea drinkers. When the British found out about this marvelous drink, they went absolutely gaga for the stuff. For close to two centuries, tea and its various associated industries made up close to five percent of the English gross domestic product, even though no English person knew anything about the complex process of growing the plants or preparing the leaves for use.

Oh, a lawyer in the courtroom
In the middle of an alimony plea
Has to stop and help 'em pour when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

Given the large number of settlers who came to Texas from the British Isles, one might assume that hot tea** would be a favourite drink here. Unfortunately, however, down in the Lone Star State, "tea" usually refers to an orangish liquid served over ice with heaps of sugar and a slice of lemon.

I learned about tea—the pot and kettle kind—from two elderly aunts. I've never figured this out, but these wonderful old spinsters also taught me to spell things the British way*** (a habit which caused more than a few problems in school). Teatime was a favourite around their house—hot milky tea and cookies in the afternoon, a delight for my six-year old senses! It was only later that I realised that it is not a common custom around this here neck of the woods.

It's a very good English custom
Though the weather be cold or hot
When you need a little pick-up, you'll find a little tea cup
Will always hit the spot

You remember Cleopatra
Had a date to meet Mark Anthony at three
When he came an hour late she said "You'll have to wait"
For everything stops for tea

There are over 2,000 varieties and blends of tea (think about THAT for a second, you could try a different one every day for almost five and a half years!). Many of the fancy flavoured teas, including the exceptionally well-loved Earl Grey started out when Chinese merchants would adulterate their teas with leaves, fruit peels and flowers. This was done to extend the stock, to cope with the explosion of demand from the West—many people developed a taste for some of these adulterants. Even twigs, sawdust and iron filings were sometimes used to extend the stock, but those did not catch on so well!

Oh, they may be playing football
And the crowd is yelling "Kill the referee!"
But no matter what the score, when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea

The 90sBill Clinton, dot-coms, Alanis Morrisette, shopping by internet—my career path brought me to an insanely stressful job at a print service bureau. Maintaining laser network systems and making sure that jobs work properly and run on time was a 24-7 commitment—a 24-7 commitment that made me want to pull my hair out!

Near me in the cube farm was a tall, handsome gentleman named Robert. He was English, having grown up somewhere near or in London and lived for a time in India as well. His light accent sounded very cultured to my unrefined ears, more accustomed (as they were) to the world of Hee Haw than to Fawlty Towers. Every day, around four o'clock, Robert brewed up a small pot of tea (about two cups, if memory serves) at his desk and took a break to enjoy a cuppa with those little shortbread cookies that come in the red tartan package. It was like clockwork—we could be in a meeting or on an important conference call to the big bosses, but when four o'clock came, Robert got his tea.

As a recovering wallflower who was learning assertiveness, I thought my colleague's habit of taking tea and damning the consequences was delightfully audacious—just the way I hoped to become. It was not long before I started joining in at four o'clock teatime. It was something to look forward to and a break from the near madness-inducing hubbub of the print center. No matter what the workday might bring, I could look forward to a magical 15-minute oasis of quiet conversation; learning about Tibetan Buddhism, pubs and the blues or simply gossiping about the day's events. I think Robert and his teatime may have saved my sanity.

It's a very good English custom
And a stimulant for the brain
When you feel a little weary, a cup'll make you cheery
And it's cheaper than champagne

Tea drinkers are still seen as somewhat eccentric around these parts, but we have a way of finding one another. My boss at a later job, Julie, was an avid tea lover and we swapped knowledge of blends and tea-making lore—it never hurts to find something in common with the owner of the company!

As I have moved down the slippery slope from cheap tea bags to expensive tea leaves, from mug to kettle to teapot, I have learned some of the customs and fine points associated with tea. Half the fun of tea is the ritual of making it—experimenting with blends, adding milk, sugar or honey (or not!) and learning what your favourites are ... What other beverage can boast such a lifestyle?

Now I know just why Franz Schubert
Didn't finish his unfinished symphony
He might have written more but the clock struck four
And everything stopped for tea

*krenseby points out that "Russians love tea too, drinking it with every meal and outside of meals as a special treat..." Of course, the songwriter could have picked on us USA-types, but we don't have a national drink (well, maybe Coca-Cola or cheap, watery beer but how would that have sounded in the song?)
**It is my understanding that what we clueless USA-types call "hot tea" has a better name across the pond. Apparently, our English cousins simply call it "tea." Now that makes sense! (thanks to wertperch!)
***Both of my aunts were as Texan as Texan could be, but both were extremely educated and born in the 1880s. I have wondered if they learned from a British teacher or perhaps went to school in Canada or something, but no further information is forthcoming.

The song lyrics for Everything Stops for Tea are from the 1935 musical comedy film Come Out of the Pantry (doesn't that sound like a strange idiom, perhaps involving closeted gay chefs?) and were written by Al Goodhart, Al Hoffman, and Maurice Sigler. I became aware of the song because of the hilarious version of it on John Baldrey's album of that name.

CST Approved


References:
Some of the fun facts about tea were taken from Henry Hobhouse's brilliant book "Seeds of Change, Five Crops that Transformed Mankind" (Harper and Row, New York, 1987).
Stash Tea's brilliant website at www.stashtea.com

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