Transmitting a love of tea one person at a time
by James Norwood Pratt • Photograph Courtesy of www.tealet.com
“T for Texas,” sang the sainted father of country music long ago, and I have lived to see Jimmy Rodgers’s prophecy come true. For years now, eight or ten tea lovers have been getting together almost every week at The Steeping Room in Austin. After a trip to San Francisco for the SF International Tea Festival, Ellen Simonetti, along with Susan Alatorre and several others, came home convinced that “we can do this, too!” Having announced, with fingers crossed, the first-ever tea festival in Texas, to their relief and amazement, they sold 600 tickets in just two weeks. Then almost a thousand attended. The tea-fuelled talk was so happy and constant, Emeric Harney (John’s grandson) in the booth to my right and Devan Shah (representing Waterfall Tea) to my left had no chance to say more than hello to me till the event closed. People from all parts of Texas—and even distant lands like North Carolina, New Mexico, and Kansas—showed up to share the exhilaration and to take some of it back home. There’s now talk of festivals in Houston and Kansas City.
Proof positive that tea is a moveable feast was the mobile tearoom hosted—in fact created and driven—by a fellow tea apostle named Guisepi. His mission is to serve tea for free to all comers wherever he parks his bus, opens the side with its customized tea bar, and hangs out his sign “Free Tea.” Guisepi is the incarnation for our time of the old tea seller of Kyoto, who actually never sold a cup of tea. Like old Baisao, young Guisepi accepts donations but never charges. His ingeniously designed tearoom is spotless and beautiful, like the tea spirit he spreads from town to town. Why not invite him to yours? www.freeteaparty.org
Tea is always something we learn from other people who already know how to enjoy it. It is an acquired pleasure that must be transmitted in the same way tea very gradually spread from its place of origin down the length of the Yangtze River to the China Sea and then overseas to Korea and Japan. Around 400 years ago, Europeans—Portuguese first and then Dutch—finally had a taste and managed to take tea home with them. The English, in turn, learned tea from the Dutch, and so it went around the world—just as it goes still.
We American tea lovers are the transmitters of tea in our time and place. As each one teaches another and then another how to share tea’s various pleasures, we are creating America’s future tea culture. Every society that adopts tea acquires a heightened love for applied arts; Chinese porcelain, Japanese earthenware, and English silver are all by-products of tea culture. Good tea wares must be not only practical but beautiful—both to hold and to behold—just as good tea must not only pick you up and warm or cool you but also have a lovely taste. We cherish the state tea induces—one of heightened alertness, tranquility and freedom from care, and of ruddy cheeks and sparkling conversation. We doubt that anything contributes more to sociability or the enjoyment of leisure. It is through our efforts and example that Americans, from the humblest to the most privileged, are now taking to tea. And like Guisepi, as we transmit what we know of tea’s secrets to our fellow Americans, it is easy to predict we are helping create a country that is healthier, happier, and far less quarrelsome.
TeaTime contributing editor James Norwood Pratt is a highly regarded teacher and speaker and a recognized authority on tea and tea lore, who has devoted more than three decades to its study. His eponymous Tea Dictionary was published in 2010. For more information, visit jamesnorwoodpratt.com. He and his wife, Valerie, live in San Francisco.
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