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1950s Archive

Steeped in History

Originally Published January 1955
On the occasion of Gourmet Live’s June 6, 2012, issue saluting Food Jobs, we are pleased to reprint this early article by the late, great dean of professional food criticism, Craig Claiborne. In The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat, a 2012 biography of Claiborne, author Thomas McNamee recounts how Claiborne’s food-writing career was launched when Gourmet’s Ann Seranne assigned him his first article for the magazine. Here is that very piece reprinted in its entirety, recipes and all.

Craig Claiborne, left, at the stove with chef and New York Times food columnist Pierre Franey.

Twenty years ago one of the world’s seldom disputed authorities on tea commented gravely that the Boston Tea Party had given Americans a prenatal disinclination for drinking the stuff. It would seem that he was short-circuited in his thinking, somewhere between orange pekoe and pekoe perhaps, for last year alone some 104 million pounds of tea were imported into the United States, converted into the equivalent of 20 billion cups of liquid ranging in shade from pale amber to oxblood, and drunk by the populace from Bangor to Berkeley, from the Canadian border south to Key West.

Tea, for all its present popularity, is a relative newcomer to the roster of beverages consumed in this hemisphere, and is one of the few universally consumed items in the world to which neither reference nor allusion is made in Shakespeare or the Bible.

Nobody, it seems, is dead certain as to the original home of tea. Some say China, because certain varieties or species which grow there are distinctive and wholly unlike plants found growing elsewhere. Others, with equally convincing facts at their disposal, say India. Most authorities, however, are agreed that the use of tea leaves in making the world’s second-ranking non-alcoholic beverage, did originate with the Chinese, and that the cultivation of the tea plant for its leaves has been carried on in China for more than a thousand years.

One legend concerning the plant’s origin says that a Buddhist saint named Bodhidharma, commonly known as Daruma, had vowed to stay awake for seven years contemplating Buddha, and that at the end of the fifth year he was almost overcome with a feeling of drowsiness. In desperation, to prevent his eyelids from closing, he ripped them off and threw them to the ground. The local climate being what it was that year, they took root and grew up as tea plants.

Somewhat less bizarre (and decidedly more palatable) is a version of the same legend, which derives from India and alleges that Daruma, or Bodhidharma if you prefer, in distress at the fifth year of constant wakefulness, debarrassed a nearby bush of its leaves and chewed them. Happily it turned out that these were the leaves of a tea plant, which provided sufficient fortification to enable him to maintain his vigil for the remaining two years.

These events, apocryphal perhaps in one or two details, supposedly transpired more than 2,500 years before Christ. The first known reference to tea, however, was made by a Chinese lexicographer in 350 A.D. and the first book to appear on the subject was a treatise entitled Ch’a Ching, meaning Tea Scripture, which appeared in 780 A.D., the work of a Chinese comedian named Lu Yu.

The tea plant is an evergreen hailing from the same family as the camellia, and becomes in its maturity either a tree or bush depending on whether or not, or how often, it has been pruned. Given free rein in their growth, tea plants have been known to achieve a height in excess of thirty feet. It is said that in China tea bushes are kept down to a maximum height of three feet so that the economy-sized Chinaman can work to the best advantage. Though the leaves are generally plucked today by hand or by machine, a Buddhist legend has it that monkeys were first employed for the work. The story goes that the Chinese would chase a monkey to the very top of a tea tree where the shoots grow sweetest and the leaves most tender and throw stones at him. The simian, thus angered, would unwittingly go along with the gag by firing tea-branch broadsides at his tormentors, much to the latters’ delight.

The plant, first classified Thea sinensis in 1753 by the Swedish botanist Linnaeus, begins as a brown seed, bears a white blossom with a yellow center, and grows under practically any circumstances, other than severe drought, at any altitude—the higher the better—up to seven thousand feet. (Several hundreds were brought to the United States a few decades ago and planted in North Carolina. Though the climate was favorable and the plants thrived, labor costs proved to be prohibitive, so the native leaf was never marketed.)

More than three thousand leaf shoots are required to prepare one pound of the dried, marketable product and one bush may yield as much as one-fourth of a pound of leaf during a single season. A bush is at the peak of its yield when it reaches its tenth year, although it continues to bear quality leaves at the ripe old age of one hundred. Leaves on the bush are dark green in color and from one to twelve inches in length.

Tea is a happy combination of caffeine, which is a stimulant, tannin, which provides tea with its color, pungency and strength, and oil, which is of the essence for aroma and flavor. For the sake of the record, the average cup of coffee, made according to the rule of forty cups of brew per pound, has about twice as much caffeine as a cup of tea, or one and one-half grains. As to tannin, while it is an excellent agent for tanning hides, it does not tan the lining of the stomach as has been suggested by a small-purposed clique of coffee lovers. Those who drink their tea straight may be cheered to learn that the liquid combines with the protein in the stomach; for those who take their tea with milk or cream, let it be known that tannin attaches itself to the casein which is contained in both milk and cream. Thus in either case all evil effects on the stomach are circumvented.

Tea is termed black tea or green tea depending on the methods of processing employed after it has been plucked. There are two grades of tea in the black tea family—leaf grades, which include orange pekoe (the Tea Council says it’s pronounced peck-o, not peek-o), pekoe, and pekoe souchong; and broken grades, subdivided into broken orange pekoe, broken pekoe, broken pekoe souchong, fannings, and dust. Such grading indicates leaf size and appearance and is not a guide to quality; witness the fact that the British prefer the stronger brew produced by the broken grades, while Americans find the leaf grades are pretty much to their taste. The green tea family is graded young hyson, hysons No. 1 and 2, gunpowder, twankey, fannings and dust.

Though the English seem somehow to be inexorably linked with the idea of tea, it’s the Dutch who seem to have played the major role in its introduction to the western world. It was the Dutch who first brought tea to Europe in 1610 and who introduced it forty years later into America at New Amsterdam (later New York).

We can give credit to an Englishman—Richard Blechynden—for introducing us to iced tea, which is a novelty in itself because even today iced tea in England is practically unheard of.

Blechynden was sent to this country in 1904 to promote the sale of India and Ceylon black teas at an international exhibition held in St. Louis during that year. He was evidently something of a pioneer huckster for he brought with him a troop of native Singhalese dressed in multicolored blouses and trousers for the purpose of serving hot tea in a pavilion built in “authentic Moslem style.” It was midsummer and any old-timer can tell you what midsummer in St. Louis used to be like.

It was as hot as hell and people attending the fair stayed away from Blechynden’s establishment in droves. Well, he did the Barnum-like thing of pouring the tea over ice—a revolutionary departure from the practice of that decade. Iced tea, they asked? Never heard of it. But pretty soon they were drinking it by the gallon.

Now we’re informed that more than two-thirds of the nation drinks more than six billion glasses of iced tea during a moderately warm summer.

Like iced tea, the tea bag also originated in America, and like iced tea, has its greatest popularity here. It was invented, or rather first employed, in 1908 by Thomas Sullivan, operator of a small wholesale tea and coffee shop located in the heart of New York’s spice district. Wholesaler Sullivan, reckoning to save money by distributing tea samples in cloth bags rather than the small metal cans which were generally used at this time, ordered several hundred hand-sewn bags made of China silk, filled them and sent them to his clients. Shortly orders were pouring in—not for the tea he was promoting but for the samples.

When it comes to tea, coffee, whiskey, and cigarettes, we’re a great nation of blenders. Blending teas helps manufacturers maintain a constant quality throughout any year, because the quality of leaves varies from bush to bush, season to season, and even week to week. The latter fact is the why and wherefore of professional tea tasters who reportedly are able to identify, without peekin’, no less than fifteen hundred teas.

After an inspection of color and aroma, the tea taster tastes samples and since no tea taster worth his tannin would swallow a sample while tasting, he’s generally to be found in the vicinity of a three-foot high “gaboon” while on duty.

Tea is for the most part championed throughout the world today, but such universal popularity has not always been the case, even in civilized areas. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once recovered from a paralytic condition at approximately the same time he laid off tea. Back in the pulpit he railed against the tea leaf as a root of evil and a menace to morals as well as health. Later, we’re told, he changed his mind, holding tea in such high favor that he brewed it in a custom-built, gallon-capacity tea urn.

The great tea ritual, five o’clock tea, which implies, of course, the serving of tea with hors-d’oeuvre, small canapés, cakes, marmalades, jellies and the like, possibly was originated in England by Anna, wife of the seventh Duke of Bedford. During her lifetime, which spanned the years of 1788 to 1861, it was customary to eat ponderous breakfasts, light lunches and late dinners. Along about five o’clock in the afternoon Anna, wanting some little something to tide her over and someone to share it with, made five o’clock tea a daily routine. Reference also is made to afternoon tea in the famed seventeenth-century correspondence of Madame de Sévigné, who also made the first known mention of the use of milk in tea in Europe.

Though tea has never made the big-time in the league of those who compose serious music (Bach once wrote a cantata in praise of coffee), it has been source of many a Tin Pan Alley success, such as Youman’s “Tea for Two,” “Tea on the Terrace” and “When I Take My Sugar to Tea.” The Australian folk song “Waltzing Matilda,” incidentally, is a tea-inspired epic. Seems that the tin vessel employed by the bushmen for boiling their tea water is known sometimes as a billy-can and sometimes as a matilda and, according to one informant, is in practically constant use, what with the inhabitants from Down Under having an almost insatiable thirst for the liquid.

Etymologically speaking, we inherited not only the leaf, but also its name from the Orient. It stems from an Amoy dialect variation on the Chinese word for the product, ch’a. The residents of Amoy say tay, while the Japanese and Portuguese say cha, the Russians tschai, the French thé, the Germans and Dutch thee, the Danish the, the Spanish té, and the Italians tè.

The efforts of the high-purposed tea industry in the United States being what they are, Americans are coming more and more to standardize their tea making and, as of this writing, experts are generally in accord that the best procedure for making tea is as follows: always use a teapot, preheated with scalding water. Place one tea bag or one teaspoon of tea per cup into the pot. (“One for the pot,” according to the Tea Council is no longer necessary nor even recommended. Such an idea is definitely old hat and has been for a year or more.) Pour boiling water directly over the leaves. The Tea Council recommends “merrily bubbling, boiling water,” but we suspect that water, freshly drawn and boiling would do as well. And finally, let the tea stand, or “brew,” without boiling, for no less than three minutes and no more than five: The color test won’t work with tea, for color varies according to grade and variety, so that the shade is not necessarily an indication of strength. A French missionary, a couple of centuries ago, recommended allowing the tea leaves to steep no longer than is necessary to chant the Miserere psalm in a leisurely fashion. You may try it if you like, but the procedure outlined above unquestionably produced a better and more uniform cup of tea.

And now, Polly, put that kettle on and let’s have tea!

Hot Tea Punch

Pour 6 cups boiling water over 6 teaspoons tea leaves and let stand. Meanwhile, in a saucepan combine cup each of water and granulated sugar, a 2-inch stick of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind, and 1 1/3 teaspoons grated orange rind. Bring to a boil and boil for five minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick, add 1/4 cup orange juice and 2 tablespoons pineapple juice, and strain the tea into the fruit mixture. Serve piping hot. Makes six to eight servings.

Minted Orange Tea

Pour 3 cups boiling water over 2 tablespoons tea and brew for 5 minutes. Stir, strain, and add to the tea 1/3 cup lemon juice, cup orange juice, and sugar to taste. Chill. When ready to serve, add 1 pint ginger ale and pour over ice cubes into tall glasses. Decorate each glass with a sprig of mint and an orange slice. Makes six servings.

Spiced Tea

Put 1 teaspoon whole cloves and a 1-inch stick of cinnamon in a cheesecloth bag. Put 3 tablespoons black tea in another cheesecloth bag and close both bags securely with kitchen thread. Bring 3 quarts water to a boil and steep the tea and spice bags in it for 5 minutes. Remove the bags. Heat together the juice of 1 1/2 lemons and 3 oranges with 1 cup granulated sugar and add the sweetened juice to the tea.

Rum Tea

Into a glass put 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 2 ounces rum, and a slice of lemon peel. Fill the glass with hot tea, stir with a cinnamon stick, serve immediately.

Tea Granité

Boil 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar for 5 minutes. Cool the syrup and mix it with 3 cups chilled double-strength tea. Pour the mixture into a refrigerator tray and freeze it for 4 to 5 hours, without stirring, until it forms a granular mass. Serve in sherbet glasses with 1 tablespoon rum over each serving.

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