Difficult History: A Cuppa Politics

IMG_0711

Alternate title: “The Boston Tea Party is Relevant Today and Not For the Reasons You Think”

Yes, another one. Apparently, a follower on Instagram who had missed my previous three posts on the political history of tea decided to tell me that “tea should be relaxing, not political.” Obviously, I disagree. And plenty of my other followers immediately came into my DMs with “Yeah, have they never heard of the Boston Tea Party?!” Oh yes, we’re doing the Boston Tea Party today.

But guess what? The Boston Tea Party isn’t what you think it is. It’s come up a lot recently because of the violence, property damage, and looting that occurred surrounding the protests in support of Black lives this year. People on one side of the argument pointed out that looting is considered patriotic when it’s white people destroying tea, while others turned to refute that by ascribing higher morals and debunking that the Boston Tea Party was at all similar to looting Target.

So, in case there are people who aren’t familiar with the “Boston Tea Party,” as it has been come to be called since the 19th century, it was an event in December 1773 when a group of men disguised themselves and destroyed a shipment of tea belonging to the British East India Company. But the details of the event, and its significance in the motivations for the American Revolution, have been shrouded in the mythology of the noble founding fathers.

The myth is that a group of noble Sons of Liberty valiantly destroyed only the tea belonging to the British East India Company in protest of the taxes levied by the crown, selflessly refusing to take anything for themselves or to touch any private property. After this single, glorious act, the cause of liberty was begun, leading to the American Revolution, which freed the colonies and created the new democratic country of the United States of America. Well… it’s actually a lot more nuanced than that.

First of all, they were not protesting higher taxes. They were actually, technically, protesting lower taxes. The Tea Act of 1773 granted license to the East India Tea Company to import their tea without the typical duties levied against other teas coming into the colonies. This amounted to a decrease in the cost of tea for the colonists, if they bought EIC tea. Now, Malcolm Gladwell has argued that the real motivation was that the tax break for the EIC meant that smugglers were now getting undercut, but that seems to be a slightly reductive, naive reading of the situation.

Instead, the main concern was not that tea was too expensive, but that the colonists were protesting the levying of taxes without their input and the fact that the Crown was giving a specific tax break to one large company, effectively granting them a monopoly. The phrase “no taxation without representation” became a rallying cry, not because taxes were too high, but because they were too biased. In fact, the phrase “End Taxation Without Representation” still appears on DC license plates, as the District is federally taxed without full representation in Congress, and yet DC statehood is not supported by many conservatives for *reasons*.

And, yes, notable founding fathers like George Washington and John Adams wrote negatively about “the destruction of the tea,” as it was called at the time. While they supported the cause of colonial liberty (well, for them, at least), they spoke out of both sides of their mouths, lest they sever ties with their business contacts. In my video “Tea with Abigail Adams,” I discuss how, despite the perception that drinking tea was unpatriotic immediately following the destruction of the tea, Americans seemed to have quickly forgotten their newfound protest and return to tea-drinking rather quickly. Adams writes frequently in the years after 1773 about some new tea or other that he has tried and wanted to send home to his wife, and Abigail Adams includes bohea tea in her list of household expenses.

Plus, many of John’s business contacts were in the hospitality business and maintained ties to British ideology in order to serve foreign dignitaries. The politics of business has always been murky. So it is nothing new when a modern company posts support for a cause one day, but continues the practices that benefit them the next. In fact, this is part of the legacy of the Boston Tea Party.

Now, we get to the ideological effect of the Boston Tea Party. First of all, the term “Boston Tea Party” seems to have been coined around 1825 by newspapers referring to the historic event some fifty years earlier. At the time, it was simply known as the destruction of the tea or the dumping of the tea. Even a famous engraving from 1789, which has been come to be called “The Boston Tea Party,” was originally simply titled “Americans throwing the cargoes of the tea ships into the river, at Boston.”

Beyond that, the disguise as Mohawk indigenous people, while it has been explained as a statement of identification with the indigenous population of the continent and not as British subjects, was not as comprehensive as later depictions suggest. Contemporary accounts talk of people grabbing ragged clothing and blackening their faces with soot to suggest “savages” rather than donning well-thought-out costumes. That, combined with the secrecy surrounding the identities of the protestors, suggests that the disguises were just that — a way to avoid being identified. And the result was that the Crown, in the absence of specific people to prosecute, cracked down on the whole of the colonies. And THAT was what brought together politically disparate colonial leaders into supporting the Revolution.

As far as the issue of theft goes, while it was generally accepted that the purpose of the event was protest and destruction, not personal gain, the eyewitness account does point out the one or two were caught pocketing the tea and were “roughly handled” by their fellows, but one can imagine that there must have been some who were not caught. While many of the protestors had this ideal, it is apparent that not all of them did. So it is also unrealistic to claim that none of the protestors would stoop to theft. If modern protestors are caught stealing, perhaps it is only because we have a lot more first-hand evidence of current events on camera than we have of events of 250 years ago.

Finally, the protest at Boston is 1773 was not an isolated event. It happens to be the most well-known, but tea protests occurred throughout the colonies, both before and after the Boston event. In 1774, tea protests occurred in my own home state of Maryland in Annapolis and Chestertown. This was not a single, isolated event, carried out by proud, non-violent, non-self-interested people. This was a rash of violence and destruction throughout the country, as it was at the time, that prompted a brutal response from the Crown. And this response led to war.

I suppose the point of this article is 1.) as a reminder that tea has been used as a symbol of politics in the United States specifically since before our country was founded, and 2.) that protest is nuanced. When we view past protest, we are viewing it through the filter of time and the biases of the historians. They say that history is written by the victors, and it’s true here as well. So when criticizing politics and political unrest, it is occasionally important to take a step back and who might be trying to encourage your emotional response to align with their opinion. It turns out the Boston Tea Party is very relevant to modern protests, but not because it was invariably hailed as good and pure from day one, but because it is a perfect example of an event that was decried as violent and destructive at the time becoming a symbol of freedom.

Tea Together Tuesday: The Greatest Gift…

IMG_0667

Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share your dream tea gift because it’s Jann’s birthday! Happy birthday, Jann!

Well, I’m going to get a little sappy right now. Last month, we were asked about our best tea-related gift that we’ve already received and I talked about my fantastic pure silver teapot that I got for my first birthday as a mother from my own mother. But this month, I’m going to go a bit more sentimental. You see, in reality, the greatest tea-related gift I’ve gotten is the amazing virtual (and occasionally in-person) circle of tea friends I’ve made over the last few years.

The last seven months of isolation have really highlighted this, as I haven’t felt so isolated, if only because I’m talking to people almost more often. I mentioned it before, when I was heartened in the early days of COVID because of the great increase in live sessions and virtual tea events that popped up, nearly overnight, like mushrooms. But as this has dragged on, it has become very apparent to me that, as much as I miss our in-person gatherings, the virtual friend group I’ve made through a mutual love of tea has been instrumental in helping me with my mental health.

I’ve gushed about new jobs, bemoaned family issues, listened to struggles with health, and shared personal and family milestones. I’ve seen friends through the loss of family members and the welcoming of new ones (furry and otherwise). I’ve even seen friends launch new businesses and projects that I have wholeheartedly supported. The sense of community, particularly for a weird introvert like me, as been essential to my well-being.

So I think the best gift I could receive would be to be able to have a big party, like the eleventy-first birthday party from The Lord of the Rings, with everyone around at tables, having tea and just generally enjoying the company that we’ve shared virtually for so long. Of course, in the age of travel restrictions and tightening budgets, this is as much a fantasy as the hobbity inspiration, but a girl can dream.

And what a dream it is. We could set up long tables, brew copious amounts of tea. Perhaps we’d have a gongfu station (like a carving station, but better!) where people could sit around a big tea table and share in a gongfu session, while others could enjoy a British-style low tea with tiny pastries and finger sandwiches. And of course, some of us would merely opt for a good solid mug of something comforting, and a hearty meal with lots of mushrooms! But maybe we’d skip the pipeweed…

In the meantime, I’m going to content myself with the latest in Nazanin’s excellent series of holiday countdown boxes. Opening a little gift everyday has been that much more fun being able to imagine Nazanin’s face as the selected each gift. And it reminds me of the gift of amazing tea friends.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you are interested in collaborating with me, please read my collaboration information for more details.

Tea Together Tuesday: Origin Stories

IMG_0150

Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to talk about the tea that was your gateway into tea culture. Now, I’ve spoken in the past about how I got into tea. And I could claim that the tea that got me into learning about tea culture outside of English-style afternoon tea was the Dragonwell I got at Teavana or the Moroccan Mint tea I had served at Epcot or the Wuyi oolong that was served at my family’s favorite local Chinese restaurant.

But really, none of these teas would probably have captured my fancy the way that they did if I hadn’t already been introduced to tea as a practice, a ritual, and an art in the form of afternoon tea parties with my mother when I was in kindergarten.

Yes, I was five years old, and rather than serving any old snack, my mother decided to teach me dining etiquette and have more fun by serving snack as afternoon tea. We often had tiny sandwiches, or homemade scones, or little tarts or pastries. Even if we simply had a plate of cookies, they would be laid out attractively and served with tea.

My mother’s preferred brand of tea was Twinings, and her favorite kind was Prince of Wales, a blend that I’ve now discovered is their only fully-Chinese blend of black teas. I actually purchased a tin of it loose for my Jane Austen historical tea video because Indian tea wasn’t widely available until decades after Austen’s death, and we know from her letters that Austen was also a dedicated Twinings customer.

I remember when I was in high school, the way that one of my boyfriends tried to ingratiate himself with my mother was by bringing a tin of Prince of Wales tea. While I tend to associate my mother with Earl Grey now, she had a special place in her heart for Prince of Wales, perhaps because it was slightly more difficult to find, in that it was not always available at the grocery store.

Beyond the tea we drank, we often used special china tea sets, which my grandmother thought was unendingly foolish for having tea with a young child. But I remember going to antique stores with my mother, looking for the various pieces of the tea set that I still have today. It is perhaps a bit small for daily use, but I have continued to pull it out as an homage to my tea roots, and as a way to play with the ideas of eastern-style tea culture with western pieces. I was thrilled to find a full-sized Brambly Hedge tea cup just last year, so that I can have an adult-sized cuppa while remembering those child-sized parties.

So while it was not the most globally-conscious introduction to tea, these afternoons with my mother taught me that tea was something special, to be savored and treated with respect and care. She taught me the value of sitting down, enjoying your tea and treats, and enjoying the company with it. Every time I sit down to tea, whether it is a solo session or with friends, I think about those afternoon tea parties and how my mother introduced me to the idea of having tea.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.

Tea Together Tuesday: What Makes a Celebrity?

IMG_0057

Today on Tea Together Tuesday, a delightful community tea prompt hosted by Tea with Jann and Tea is a Wish, the prompt is to share which celebrity you would most like to join you for tea. I have to say, this one was probably the most difficult prompt yet! I am not very plugged into what most people would think of as celebrity culture. As an actor myself, I don’t often feel like I absolutely have to meet the actors who play my favorite characters because I’m intimately familiar with the disconnect between a character and a person’s real personality.

And it got me thinking, what is a celebrity anyway, especially in this day and age? While I don’t watch a terrible lot of television or film, I do watch a lot of YouTube videos. Are YouTube creators celebrities? Does it depend on how many subscribers they have? Do they have to have a million subscribers? Five hundred thousand? A hundred thousand? Ten thousand? Five thousand (or slightly less than five thousand)? A thousand (congrats, Jann!)? Or does being the author of a widely-read and reviewed book count? What about Instagrammers? Are they celebrities?

Personally, I’ve met one of the people whom I would consider Instagram celebrities for tea once. I had tea with Stephen Alain Ko and a friend of his at Teaism a few years ago and it was absolutely lovely. I had an oolong and I don’t remember what he had (maybe bubble tea?). But perhaps a niche skincare Instagrammer doesn’t really count as a celebrity.

So back to the question at hand. I think if I want to stick to what I imagine the spirit of the word “celebrity” is, I would have to give in to my American anglophile tendencies and choose a member of the British royal family. But because I am always curious about those who might be treated as outsiders, I think I would want to have tea with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. She is doubly a celebrity because she was a famous actress before she ever married into royalty. Plus, we’re about the same age. I have a great deal of respect for her outspoken commentary on issues of equality and justice, mostly recently pausing her own pet projects to focus on Black Lives Matter.

But what tea do you serve to a duchess? While it would be easy to choose one of the “favorite teas” she has mentioned in interviews, I think I would want to offer her something a bit different. And this almond oolong from Cuples Tea House, cold-brewed in sparkling mineral water, is just that. The tea smells exactly like cream soda, so the effect is a glass of what smells like cream soda, but lacks that tooth-coating sweetness that always disappoints me about soda. And served up in a champagne coupe, it’s just that right level of fancy, plus it’s perfect for the ever-warming weather here in the northern hemisphere.

So that’s my answer: in a fantasy world where I could choose any celebrity to join me for tea, I think I would want to sit and sip and chat with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. That said, however, there are plenty of others that I consider as admirable as any “real” celebrity, and it’s quite possible that I might be able to have virtual tea with at least one of them soon. So with that tantalizing crumb, I shall leave you to ponder which celebrity you would like to come ’round for tea.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.

Cha Xi Challenge: Tea, with a Story

IMG_1963

The Cha Xi Challenge, hosted by Rie of Tea Curious, wraps up tomorrow, and I have already shared three cha xi arrangements that I’ve created, but I wanted to share a fourth because it rather exemplifies my approach to tea practice. Today’s cha xi is a very playful little setup, where I tried to create a somewhat classic gongfucha arrangement using a very English tea set. I used my Brambly Hedge miniature tea set, with a 4-oz. tea pot and three tiny tea cups to approximate the classic tea-pot-and-three-cups arrangement that forms the ideal gongfu session.

The tea pot is originally made for tiny hands, but holds almost exactly the same volume of liquid as my Yixing pot, making it perfect for gongfu-style brewing, and poured out into three tiny cups, it is very similar to the idea of a teapot the size of a citron and cups the size of walnuts that is discussed in Yuan Mei’s first description of the tea practice of the Wuyi mountains that later came to be known widely as gongfucha. I used my well-loved practice of using a cake plate as a teapot saucer, and found that the milk pitcher made a lovely vase for a single rosebud from my garden, while the sugar bowl made a fitting vessel in which to display the tea leaves. They nestled into a basket with a cotton napkin as a base that fits the rustic-yet-refined aesthetic that Brambly Hedge evokes. As a side note, I chose a bud as a nod to the Japanese ikebana practice of choosing flowers that have not yet opened for arrangements so that the recipient can enjoy the full life cycle of the bloom.

And what better tea to pair with such a delightful setup than a honey fragrance black tea from Taiwan? Taiwan has become a place, which, in my mind, has exemplified the blending of modern innovation and traditional tea practice. Plus, black tea is the perfect tea for such an English tea set, while the honey fragrance suggests the flavors of the countryside and the sweetener that would be most available to the woodland creatures of Brambly Hedge.

But this is not just a playful mix of East and West in my tea practice: Like so much of my tea collection, this set has a story. This pattern dates to the year I was born, and when I was five years old and started kindergarten, my mother introduced me to afternoon tea when she would have a low tea (the traditional “fancy tea party” that is often mistakenly called “high tea”) each afternoon when I returned from school as my afternoon snack. She would enjoy putting together a selection of tiny sandwiches and sweets, while I would enjoy learning about the etiquette of the tea table. Obviously, the practice stuck with me.

Most days, we used an inexpensive white stoneware tea set, but as time went on, my mother found this set, one piece at a time, in antique stores. I remember visiting antique stores in the town in which I now live, looking for specific seasons we were missing, or the tea pot that proved elusive. It was a shared experience of collection in a time when you could not just sign into Etsy or eBay and find a dozen examples of full sets available with free shipping. Scouring antique stores and learning about the pattern became something of a passion for both of us, and we both still enjoy searching for new teaware, albeit using all tools at our disposal now.

IMG_1965

So I suppose this cha xi is a perfect visual representation of the aesthetic of Tea Leaves and Tweed. It is both an attempt to remain true to the spirit of cha xi and gongfucha practice, while using a vintage English tea set, and one that retains a great deal of meaning and family connection. Plus, it is perfectly at home in the garden! And, of course, I spilled everywhere when I tried to pour the tea in the traditional way, circulating around all three cups to make an even pour in each.

NB: Nothing to disclose. If you’re interested in collaborating with me, please read my contact and collaboration information.

Tea With Friends: Hosting My First Tea Tasting Gathering

IMG_0952

I’ve been running this blog for about five years and have been drinking tea for almost my entire life, and I have hosted my fair share of tea parties. From the late-night, tea and biscuits nights with my friend Rebecca, where we would drink too much Earl Grey, eat Pepperidge Farm chocolate biscuits, and stay up all night watching British comedy, to my ever-so-proper bridal tea, my teas tend to be of the British persuasion. But as I’ve gotten more into tea cultures from around the world, I’ve wanted to try sharing my tea practices with my friends, especially those who have already expressed an interest. So I recently contacted two of my friends who are not seriously into tea, but who have made comments about wanting to learn, to come over and share a tea tasting.

I decided to taste three different teas that I find particularly interesting and that will introduce different types of teaware. I also put out a couple little dishes of nuts and dried fruit, just in case people needed a little to nibble, since we were tasting from about 10 a.m. to noon.

We started with a Rou Gui in my Chaozhou pot, served traditionally in a gongfu style so that I could demonstrate the practice. It was so fun to watch them taste this style of tea for the first time. We talked about aromas versus flavors versus mouthfeel, and they asked a ton of questions. I will say, it was a little difficult to try to avoid steering their perception of the tea, since I’m so used to tasting alone in front of a camera and having to carry the entire conversation, but I really enjoyed getting their perspectives on the tea. They were particularly intrigued that we didn’t need to steep it for a long time, and that the flavor evolved over the different steepings. And when we tasted the rinse at the end of the session, they noticed some flavors that I don’t usually.

Throughout the tasting, we used my Tea Notes pad from Tea Thoughts to jot down notes, and I love how Nazanin has organized the note sheet, with a spot for “Steep Memory,” so that you’re encouraged to connect emotionally with a tea. I also think it helped keep the tasting fun and not too serious.

After the yancha, we moved on to a sort of intermission with the Malawi Antlers tea from Rare Tea Company. I chose this tea in part because the stems will have less caffeine and I know at least one person at the tasting had to be careful of caffeine, but also because it’s a lovely example of how different parts of the tea plant can have different flavors. And it was a good way to demonstrate the use of the gaiwan before I gave each of them their own to play with. They were intrigued that the Malawi Antlers tasted almost more like an herbal infusion than tea because of the lack of tannins, and at least one of them said it was their favorite of the day.

Then, we moved on to the AAA Tieguanyin from Yunnan Sourcing, which you may remember from my recent comparative tasting video. I loved this tea and I thought sharing a really floral green oolong would be a nice contrast to the spicy roasted yancha earlier in the session. I also had each of them steep it themselves with one of my 60-ml gaiwans, so we had a little interlude where we practiced pouring cold water with the gaiwan.

IMG_0956

We ended up spending about two hours tasting tea, talking about it, and just enjoying each other’s company. It was a wonderful way to spend time with friends and share my interests in real life, since most of my tea-related interactions happen online. And it was fun to try out hosting a tasting. I definitely want to try it again sometime!