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tea Leaves




BY JOHN ERNEST MCCANN

According to Henry Thomas Buckle, the author of The History
of Civilization in England, who was the master of eighteen
languages, and had a library of 22,000 volumes, with an income
of $75,000 a year, at the age of twenty-nine, in 1850 (he died in
1860, at the age of thirty-nine), tea making and drinking were,
or are, what Wendell Phillips would call lost arts. He thought
that, when it came to brewing tea, the Chinese philosophers
were not living in his vicinity. He distinctly wrote that, until he
showed her how, no woman of his acquaintance could make a
decent cup of tea. He insisted upon a warm cup, and even spoon,
and saucer. Not that Mr. Buckle ever sipped tea from a saucer.
Of course, he was right in insisting upon those above-mentioned
things, for tea-things, like a tea-party, should be in sympathy
with the tea, not antagonistic to it. Still, not always; for, on one
memorable occasion, in the little town of Boston, the greatest
tea-party in history was anything but sympathetic. But let that
pass.

Emperor Kien Lung wrote, 200 years or more ago, for the benefit
of his children, just before he left the Flowery Kingdom
for a flowerier:

Set a tea-pot over a slow fire; fill it with cold water; boil it long
enough to turn a lobster red; pour it on the quantity of tea in a
porcelain vessel; allow it to remain on the leaves until the vapor
evaporates, then sip it slowly, and all your sorrows will follow
the vapor.

He says nothing about milk or sugar. But, to me, tea without
sugar is poison, as it is with milk. I can drink one cup of tea, or
coffee, with sugar, but without milk, and feel no ill effects; but
if I put milk in either tea or coffee, I am as sick as a defeated
candidate for the Presidency. That little bit of fact is written as a
hint to many who are ill without knowing why they are, after
drinking tea, or coffee, with milk in it. I don't think that milk
was ever intended for coffee or tea. Why should it be? Who was
the first to color tea and coffee with milk? It may have been a
mad prince, in the presence of his flatterers and imitators, to be
odd; or just to see if his flatterers would adopt the act.

The Russians sometimes put champagne in their tea; the Germans,
beer; the Irish, whiskey; the New Yorker, ice cream; the English,
oysters, or clams, if in season; the true Bostonian, rose leaves;
and the Italian and Spaniard, onions and garlic.

You all know one of the following lines, imperfectly. Scarcely
one in one hundred quotes them correctly. I never have
quoted them as written, off-hand--but lines run out of my head
like schoolboys out of school,

When the lessons and tasks are all ended,
And school for the day is dismissed.

Here are the lines:

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast;
Let fall the curtains; wheel the sofa round;
And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamly column, and the cups
That cheer, but not inebriate, wait on each,
To let us welcome peaceful evening in.

Isn't that a picture? Not one superfluous word in it! Who knows
its author, or when it was written, or can quote the line before or
after


the cups
That cheer, but not inebriate?

&&or in what poem the lines run down the ages? I tell you? Not I. I
don't believe in encouraging laziness. If I tell you, you will let it
slip from your memory, like a panic-stricken eel through the
fingers of a panic-stricken schoolboy; but if you hunt it up, it
will be riveted to your memory, like a ballet, and one never
forgets when, where, how, why, and from whom, he receives
that.

What a pity that, in Shakespeare's time, there was no tea-table!
What a delightful comedy he could, and would, have written
around it, placing the scene in his native Stratford! What a
charming hostess at a tea-table his mother, Mary Arden (loveliest
of womanly names), would have made! Any of the ladies of the
delightful Cranford wouldn't be a circumstance to a tea-table
scene in a Warwickshire comedy, with lovely Mary Arden Shakespeare
as the protagonist, if the comedy were from the pen of her
delightful boy, Will. Had tea been known in Shakespeare's time,
how much more closely he would have brought his sexes, under
one roof, instead of sending the more animal of the two off
to The Boar's Head and The Mermaid, leaving the ladies to
their own verbal devices.

Shakespeare, being such a delicate, as well as virile, poet,
would have taken to tea as naturally as a bee takes to a rose or
honeysuckle; for the very word tea suggests all that is
fragrant, and clean, and spotless: linen, silver, china, toast,
butter, a charming room with charming women, charmingly gowned,
and peach and plum and apple trees, with the scent of roses,
just beyond the open, half-curtained windows, looking down
upon, or over, orchard or garden, as the May or June morning
breezes suggest eternal youth, as they fill the room with
perfume, tenderness, love, optimism, and hope in immortality.
Coffee suggests taverns, caf?s, sailing vessels, yachts,
boarding-houses-by-the-river-side, and pessimism. Tea suggests
optimism. Coffee is a tonic; tea, a comfort. Coffee is prose; tea
is poetry. Whoever thinks of taking coffee into a sick-room?
Who doesn't think of taking in the comforting cup of tea? Can
the most vivid imagination picture the angels (above the stars)
drinking coffee? No. Yet, if I were to show them to you over the
teacups, you would not be surprised or shocked. Would you?
Not a bit of it. You would say:

That's a very pretty picture. Pray, what are they talking about,
or of whom are they talking?

Why, of their loved ones below, and of the days of their coming
above the stars. They know when to look for us, and while the
time may seem long to us before the celestial reunion, to them it
is short. They do not worry, as we do. We could not match their
beautiful serenity if we tried, for they know the folly of wishing
to break or change divine laws.

What delightful scandals have been born at tea-tables--rose and
lavender, and old point lace scandals: surely, no brutal scandals
or treasons, as in the tavern. Tea-table gossip surely never
seriously hurt a reputation. Well, name one. No? Well, think of
the shattered reputations that have fallen around the bottle. Men
are the worst gossips unhanged, not women.

In 1652, tea sold for as high as ?10 in the leaf. Pepys had his
first cup of tea in September, 1660. (See his Diary.) The rare
recipe for making tea in those days was known only to the elect,
and here it is:

To a pint of tea, add the yolks of two fresh eggs; then beat
them up with as much fine sugar as is sufficient to sweeten the
tea, and stir well together. The water must remain no longer
upon the tea than while you can chant the Miserere psalm in a
leisurely fashion.

But I am not indorsing recipes of 250 odd years ago. The above
is from the knowledge box of a Chinese priest, or a priest from
China, called P?re Couplet (don't print it Quatrain), in 1667. He
gave it to the Earl of Clarendon, and I extend it to you, if you
wish to try it.

John Milton knew the delights of tea. He drank coffee during
the composition of Paradise Lost, and tea during the building
of Paradise Regained.

Like all good things, animate and inanimate, tea did not become
popular without a struggle. It, like the gradual oak, met with
many kinds of opposition, from the timid, the prejudiced, and
the selfish. All sorts of herbs were put upon the market to offset
its popularity; such as onions, sage, marjoram, the Arctic
bramble, the sloe, goat-weed, Mexican goosefoot, speedwell,
wild geranium, veronica, wormwood, juniper, saffron, carduus
benedictus, trefoil, wood-sorrel, pepper, mace, scurry grass,
plantain, and betony.

Sir Hans Sloane invented herb tea, and Captain Cook's companion,
Dr. Solander, invented another tea, but it was no use--tea had
come to stay, and a blessing it has been to the world, when
moderately used. You don't want to become a tea drunkard,
like Dr. Johnson, nor a coffee fiend, like Balzac. Be moderate
in all things, and you are bound to be happy and live long.
Moderation in eating, drinking, loving, hating, smoking,
talking, acting, fighting, sleeping, walking, lending, borrowing,
reading newspapers--in expressing opinions--even in bathing
and praying--means long life and happiness.





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