Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Washington and tea

Concubine Oolong from ShanLinXi, spring 2018
To drink tea properly in the present, it helps to study the history of tea. Likewise, I thought it would be helpful to read Washington, a life by Ron Chernow to understand the roots of the United States of America. When you grow up in France, like me, you learn about the American Revolution through the prism of France's Marquis de Lafayette. Such a prism was useful to get French pupils interested, but it may have reduced and distorted the role of other important players. These 800 pages should help me get me the proper perspective! However, for this blog post, since my readers are not all Americans, but are all tea drinkers, I propose to let you know about the many links I have found between George Washington and tea. I have found them very helpful to understand and remember his story.

1. Page 8: "... recent excavations have disclosed many unexpected touches of gentility. Among the artifacts unearthed have been a ... Wedgewood tea set, betokening an unmistakable air of affluence."
That his parents had a tea set shows that George Washington grew up in a wealthy family in Virginia. Before founding a republic, Washington and his family were part of the aristocracy of the colonies!

2. Page 115: "We entered one the huts of the blacks ... some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty, some cups and a teapot".
Washington was a slave owner, just like most/all planters in Virginia. He was tough, but not cruel. This detail of letting the slaves have a teapot and cups suggests that he was even kind to some of his slaves.

3. Page 119: "Then he had an unchanging breakfast of corn cakes, tea and honey."
Here we have it! Washington was one of us: he had tea every day!

4. Page 126: From Washington's diary about a party in someone else's home: "tea, and coffee which the drinkers could not distinguish from hot water sweetened".
Another proof that Washington liked the taste of tea and disliked it when hot water only tasted sweetened!
5. Tea played an important part in the American revolution. We've all heard about the Boston tea party. Here it's how it came about:

- Page 143: "Great Britain again provoked colonial discontent in 1767 with the Townshend Acts, which placed duties on paint, glass, paper, and tea."
This made these products more expensive in the colonies, especially tea.

- Page 147: in July 1770 "the strategy was to undercut the dissidents by revoking the duties while retaining the one on tea".
How unfair for tea drinkers! Guess what happened next:

- Pages 165, 166: "On December 16, 1773, (when) a patriotic band, masquerading as Mohawk Indians, heaved 342 chests of tea into the Massachussets Bay.(...) The tea tax wasn't as punitive as is commonly supposed - the cost of tea to the colonists actually declined - but it threatened local merchants by eliminating smugglers and colonial middlemen, entrenching the East India Company's monopoly. (...) The next day Washington and other militant burgesses (...) ratified a boycott of tea."
I am doubtful about this claim that the cost of tea declined at that time. China was still the only source for tea for another 70 years or so. The boycott as reaction to the tax is also interesting: if Great Britain wants to make extra money from our tea consumption, we'll stop drinking it!

- Page 167: "Washington and his ally (...) gave Alexandria voters (...) a ball that evening that was punctilious in its choice of beverages: "Coffee and chocolate, but no tea."
This boycott only worked for a while. The colonists craved their tea so much that they had no choice but to declare their independence in the pursuit of tea happiness in July 1776!
I haven't finished the book, yet. There are no more mentions of tea after this point, so far. However, when speaking of New York city, which Washington tried to defend against the Brits in 1776, the Presbyterian chaplain Philip Fithian noted that :"The vile water here sickens us all". (Page 241). Diseases like malaria, typhoid, dysentery and smallpox were the first enemies of the American militias. Boiling water to kill bacteria was an essential act that saved lives! Also, this confirms that NYC water is more suitable for coffee than for tea, which explains a lot about the prevalence of one drink over another in the big apple!

Note: I chose to drink a high oxidized Oolong, a Concubine from Shan Lin Xi, in a late Ming dynasty Dehua (Blanc de Chine) teapot. The teapot's high spout is shaped like the neck of a white swan. This tall and elegant bird is a fitting reminder of the stature of Washington in American history! 

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