There are few things more constant in my life than my morning cup of tea. I wake up, roll out of bed, stumble out to feed Gypsy, and turn on the tea kettle.* Twinings Lady Grey, Teavana’s Jasmine Pearls, and Celestial Seasoning’s Imperial White Peach are my top three choices, though I have strong feelings for a number of other flavors.  Rooibos nauseates me, which is unfortunate because a lot of smaller tea blenders that I’ve discovered have a strong fondness for it.

I trace my own tea history to early childhood, where giving up chocolate for Lent included giving up hot chocolate. While I liked the smell of percolated coffee on the stove, I wasn’t interested in drinking it.  Hot sweet tea on the other hand, that was appealing.  These days I’ve mostly eliminated sugar from my tea cup, reserving it for an occasional lump when I’m really tired or I realize I’ve forgotten dinner again.  I do keep lumps of sugar on hand though, they’re much easier to handle and to control how much sugar I’m adding.

Of late I’ve noticed that my reading has been trending towards my teacup:

It started when I got How Sugar Changed the World (Aronson/Budhos) and For All the Tea in China (Rose) in as holds at the same time.  The former is a children’s non-fiction book that got a lot of press last year; the latter is a narrative nonfiction that I can’t remember where I encountered. To my surprise and amusement I found myself approaching my favorite drink from two different sides of the globe.

How Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom and Science (Aronson/Budhos) takes a harsh look at the history of the sweet stuff that surrounds us. While giving a little bit of the extended history, most of the book focuses on the cultivation of sugar through a particularly brutal form of slavery.  It’s intended for a middle school/high school audience but that shouldn’t deter adult readers. One of the best/fastest ways to get up to speed on a topic or at least give yourself a good starting place is a children’s non fiction book and this is an excellent example of that.  The research behind this is dense and the images are provoking.

For All the Tea in China:How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History (Rose) gives the history of Robert Fortune, a man who would steal into China, exploring the horticulture and learning the secrets behind China’s most valuable export at the time. She points out the involvement of the East India Company, whose goal was primarily to make money off of tea, and demonstrates what would today seem to be a shocking amount of patience (several years of funded travel, albeit not that highly paid) for Fortune to commit international horticulture espionage. You get some English and Chinese and Indian history all rolled into the book and while I would have really liked to see her full bibliography, I found the book very readable. So much so that I’ve suggested it to M and the Incredibly-Patient-Mother, both of whom read and enjoyed it.

What slammed these two books together was the Industrial Revolution.  Both books talked about the need for workers in English factories to be focused and able to work long hours. Factory owners/managers realized they could give the workers sweetened tea, combining the tea plants that Robert Fortune was stealing from China, and the sugar that was being imported from slave labor in the Americas, in substitute for meal breaks.  Sweet tea (not the good Southern kind, but close I imagine) was found to be a substitute for ale, one that promoted health and kept the workers focused, rather than perhaps just a bit tipsy from the midday drink.

The health benefits of tea for English workers really surprised me. Of course, I know tea has lots of antioxidants and there are studies coming out all the time about why we should all be drinking tea. A quick PubMed search shows 45 new articles in 2011 alone that have tea as a Subject Heading, many of which are focused on the health benefits. And while when they mentioned water quality, I knew it wasn’t up to our current water treatment standards, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that switching one’s beverage intake to one where you were primarily consuming recently boiled water would so greatly lengthen life expectancy, lessen any number of gastrointestinal issues, decrease child mortality, etc etc etc.

And there’s apparently more to it. I’ve just started reading, at the Philosopher’s recommendation, The Ghost Map (Johnson), which is about a deadly outbreak of cholera in London. While I haven’t gotten to the specific mentions of tea yet, I’m told they are there and I’ll be looking for them (tea only gets two mentions in the index).

Finally, Gail Carriger’s fourth book in the Parasol Protectorate just came out. My copies of the first three books have been lent around a circle and while I’m pretty sure I know who has them, I enjoyed the books enough to grab a second set of copies which will hopefully hang around a little longer. I was rereading Book 1, Souless, to get back in the mood for Heartless and was enjoying her writing of tea, Battenburg, ordering tea from a butler, and immersing myself in a society that believed in the afternoon pause for a hot cup and a biscuit.

What’s in your teacup?

*Yes, the cat really does get fed before anything else in my day happens. Life is much easier this way and so  long as she only occasionally tries for a 5 a.m. breakfast, I’m okay with it.