Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why Do We Drink Tea?


I was sitting in my very gracious host's backyard the other morning, in a wooden Adirondack chair along a grassy bank of the Río Grande. It was warm, the sky was clear, and the wildlife was performing a traditional symphony. The New Mexico air, at 6,000 feet, was fresh, crisp, and delicious, and the way in which the residents of Embudo assiduously meld their comfortable abodes into original wilderness - expressly not vice versa - rounded out the purity of the experience. The scene was complemented by an apple that I picked on the way over and a cup of green tea. Perfect.


Why do we drink tea? That is a deceptively deep question. Tea does not slake thirst; we have water for that. Is it for the caffeine? Coffee has more. Is it because it tastes good? So do beer, soda, and orange juice. Heck, if taste is the criterion, then we may as well go all out and drink chocolate milk all day. Perhaps we enjoy sampling the myriad fine varieties sourced from distinct origins and prepared in different ways. But surely coffee is good for that, too, and wine is even better. Ah, I know, it must be because of how tea makes us feel on the inside. Yes, it does make us feel quite lovely; more than just hitting the spot, it soothes and relaxes, focuses and sets straight, provides a key piece of the wherewithal by which we disengage the various forces in this world allied against our sanity. But, then again, so does a nice red wine with dinner, or cold lemonade suddenly offered up on a sweltering afternoon, or warm apple cider following a long morning of snow shoveling, or a nice, slowly-sipped, single-malt scotch after a long week of grinding out the same old nonsense.

The fact is, tea is very good for all of the above as much as anything else; except perhaps for quenching thirst or pumping us full of stimulants, tea takes a back seat to nothing. Even as I gave alternate examples, it was obvious that tea belongs by the very top of each list. But none of those criteria really gets to the heart of the question of why tea is consumed so much more than other beverages, why we love it so much, why it will never cease to be the ultimate liquid delicacy.

Perhaps that will always remain a mystery, one of those earthly phenomena on which mankind cannot quite put its finger. But at the risk of trying to describe something for which our mortal lexicon is insufficient, I would like to take a stab at it.

Tea is, to me at least, the consummation of nature's offer of harmony and balance. Growing tea is uncertain and painstaking work; picking it much more so. Once the physical labor under nature's auspices is complete, the mental labor under human tradition begins, and the leaves are treated in a very precise manner, made just right, as they have been for centuries. When consumed, the tea stimulates enough, but not excessively, and can even make us feel calm. It is healthy without posing as one of those "super-foods." It tastes good without being a sugar-packed blast of gastronomic garbage. It feels good without inducing that craven, pathetic state of hollow depravity with which we are all too familiar. Tea caresses the mouth, applying perfect proportions of tannins and mellow florals onto the taste buds, which come right on time as the nose is at the peak of appreciating the rich, smile-creating aroma. On its way down, the tea leaves just enough reverberation on the flanks of the tongue to let us know that we want another sip, without plastering the mouth in a mealy film as a desperate ploy to make us consume more. Hot on a cold day, tea is known to define coziness; on a hot day, drinking it iced can refresh with the best of them. It can be drunk plain or flavored to exquisiteness; it can be drunk alone or be the centerpiece of a social occasion.

Muscle and brain; nature and civilization; toil and reward; stimulation and serenity; health and humility; flavor and modesty; depth and ease; pleasure and control; heat and coolness; individual and community; balance and harmony.

And much, much, much delight.

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