by James Norwood Pratt
Thank you, Katrina Ávila Munichiello! This is sure to be your feeling when you finish and lay aside her splendid book, A Tea Reader, and also when you return to open it over and over. Katrina had the great idea of assembling an anthology of fine writing on tea—one has to wonder why no one has done this before now. A Tea Reader is a gift to everyone who loves the English language even half as much as tea—and our tribe is large.
There are a few unknown stories from familiar old writers like Louisa May Alcott and Rudyard Kipling and several pages by makers of tea history like Thomas Lipton and Robert Fortune—but in their own words. A few poems from Chinese in translations we’ve never seen before also appear. But outnumbering all these are the bright, brisk pages by authors contemporary or long gone, known or never before heard of, which Katrina serves us in dazzling variety. Her selections average two or three pages in length, and she arranges them in five sections according to themes, introducing each with a few well-chosen words.
Tea Reveries, her first theme, invokes times of quiet inspiration when, as she says, “We wish to dive deep into that cup and become mesmerized.” Turn the page and you are faced with a few beautifully profound paragraphs by Frank Murphy on “The Spirit of Tea,” and on you sail from there to Roy Fong’s first encounter with Bi Luo Chun, perhaps, and Babette Donaldson’s account of a seduction, to mention only two more of the reveries Katrina lays before us.
Tea Connections is the next section, followed by Tea Rituals, Tea Careers, and Tea Travels, each theme neatly defined and prefaced by the author. Each one is replete with rewarding passages speaking of love and comfort, nostalgia and deep satisfactions, dreams and relationships—all induced by this miracle of vegetation we call tea. Whether it is poured from a teapot, samovar, or gaiwan, the several dozen authors all delight in the nectar of the leaf and the way it makes us feel.
For a few minutes, we get to be one with Rudyard Kipling leaving his heart under the pines in O-Toyo. We get to be there when Samuel Johnson tells his bosom friend Sir Joshua Reynolds he never takes fewer than 12 cups at a time: “Sir, I did not count your glasses of wine—why should you number my cups of tea?” In Jane Pettigrew’s own words, we hear where her totally unplanned and unforeseen career in tea has taken her. And in a piece of mine, you can again take with me my first pilgrimage to China, the holy land and homeland of tea. It is an honor to be included in such company.
Such a wealthy assortment invites quibbles, of course. As a male, I grow weary of hearing that strictly American notion, that tea is somehow unmanly, refuted or even mentioned—where’s that short story by the great Saki that says it all? And why omit George Orwell’s “A Nice Cup of Tea” or “Tea Makes Me Drunk” by M.F.K. Fisher? Like me, you’ll want to encourage Katrina to give us another volume.
For more information about A Tea Reader and to find out where to purchase it, go to tea-reader.com.
Having served the cause of tea around the world for three decades, James Norwood Pratt is a highly regarded teacher and speaker and a recognized authority on tea and tea lore. His eponymous Tea Dictionary was published in 2010. He and his wife, Valerie, live in San Francisco.