Friday, July 8, 2016

Making Tea

Chinese tea ceremony: turning the cups. Photo by Quinn Norton.
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
Until I sat down to write this I did not know that the Chinese as well as the Japanese have ritualized tea ceremonies. It makes sense that the Chinese would have a ritual though because, after all, tea is their process. They invented it and kept the process secret through isolation and complexity for many centuries. The British were deeply hooked on the stuff for many years before they used unscrupulous means to smuggle tea plants along with a crew of Chinese tea-making experts out of China to their colonies of and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and southern India to produce tea in their own colonies. And the British experiment did not succeed at first. It took multiple tries before they became self-sufficient tea producers. Even so, the British too had their tea ritual that arose from a complex system of etiquette from steeping, pouring, and serving down to keeping the pinky extended when drinking from a cup.

Ritual is important because it helps to restore what we lose as slaves to expedience, production, efficiency, and all the other shackles of the industrialized world. I often dispense with ritual for the sake of efficiency. I don't remember much German from my high school class, but I recall that there were two words, essen and fressen, and essen is when a human eats, and fressen is when an animal eats. Fressen has acquired a latter-day meaning, though, of eat up, as in to gobble, in other words to eat like an animal. My German teacher had been a little girl in Germany in those days, so she had eyewitness stories from when Hitler was in power in Germany. He was sometimes prone to fits of rage, and my teacher said he would sometimes fall on the floor and start gnawing on the carpet. It doesn't matter whether it's true or not because the meme alone serves my point. This gnawing earned Hitler the nickname Teppichfresser. Teppich is German for carpet, and fresser is eater in the animal sense.

Spanish has analogous vocabulary. Normally when people speak of eating a meal, they use the word comer, to eat, as in Vamos a comer la cena—Let's go eat dinner (or possibly: we are going to eat dinner—depends upon context). Yet there is a word tragar, which is to swallow or gulp—and it occupies the same linguistic niche as the latter-day use of fressen. In various parts of Latin America you will find little fast food shops called tragaderos, or swallowing places, which tend to sell things like underinflated empanadas, weakened buñuelos (like hush puppies except not as sweet), and so on. Yet you can get in and out of a tragadero quickly for about a dollar, so, if you're up for a cheap, greasy, light lunch, they are more satisfying than Hitler's carpets. (Tragaderos remind me of Emile Zola's L'Assommoir, the knocking-out place, but that's an altogether different bottle of absinthe.)

Yet what I'm getting at here is that if our eating habits do not distinguish us from animals, we are missing out on the more humane qualities of life. I have in the past unwittingly sold my soul to the efficiency experts and suffered as a result. Now I try to be mindful of the thousand demons around me who think they have privileges to write in my personal agenda. These demons often come in disguises to look like people I love, my family, my best friends. Yet if I do not own myself, I am just a slave to everybody else, and don't think they won't take advantage of me.

I have committed one of the great sins of journalism: I have buried the lead. The lead is the central point in a journalism story, usually in the first sentence or at least the first paragraph, which says what this story is all about. This story's lead is: I've made a five-minute YouTube documentary on how I make iced tea. I admit that my tea making may be completely devoid of ritual. Either that, or perhaps what the film documents is a ritual, the product of which just happens to be iced tea. You decide, please, and let me know.

Tea with ice is a particularly regional drink. And it also depended upon the commercial viability of ice (which I've discussed before). My informal, definitely-not-rocket-science survey of a Briton revealed that the fundamental concept of iced tea is off-putting. I do know, however, that the guys who came to trim the massive tree in my front yard appreciated the pitcher of tea that I made for them very much. It's summer, and it is hot and humid out there: every place has its bad season, and here it is now. Along a filthy beach covered in tar-balls and other petroleum waste, Texas abuts the Gulf of Mexico, and they tell me that Britain is disproportionately warm for its latitude because there is a stream out of the Gulf that rises northeasterly across the Atlantic to warm those lovely islands. Since I live in Britain's boiler room, perhaps I am entitled to put ice in my tea?