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American tea just not the same

An English rose in Georgia

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POSTED: December 15, 2011 7:00 p.m.

As the weather gets a little chilly — or as we say in England,  “nippy” — I find myself reverting to the British stereotype and looking forward to my regular cups of hot tea more than normal.
I have learned through bitter experience not to bother ordering a nice pot of tea in most restaurants in the United States because it usually is a huge disappointment.  And with a few honorable exceptions, this, too, normally is the case in most American homes. So, I sigh and ask for coffee, which most Americans do very well indeed.
After all, a nation that can make an industry out of the invention of the “low-fat double latte macchiato” and similar exotica should know what it is doing, right?
Now, I love living in beautiful Coastal Georgia, but there always is a price to pay for any happiness. The first time I experienced the crushing disappointment of American tea, I was naïve enough to think unsweetened tea was just regular hot tea — maybe a nice Assam or Darjeeling blend if I was lucky — with milk and no sugar.
Imagine my horror when a brown glass of iced tea with lemon was served to me, and I thought the sweetened version was even worse. Believe me, I have tried to like it, but I have concluded that, like grits, you have to grow up with the taste to enjoy it.
I kept hoping things would improve and was careful to order my tea hot the next time the occasion arose, but what I got was a glass of lukewarm water with a cheap, weak tea bag hanging over the side. Where was the pot, the milk jug and, above all, the taste? 
Surely it should be illegal to describe this tepid and insipid brew as tea. In fact, British people coming to the United States are as disappointed in American tea as most Americans are in the tiny amount of ice in their cold drinks when they visit the United Kingdom.
It is a shame that things got so bad here in terms of tea, because British and Dutch immigrants originally brought the tradition of drinking tea to the American colonies. 
By 1757, tea had become such a vital part of society that Manhattan established special tea-water pumps, and the New York City enacted laws concerning the quality of water for making tea. 
The Americans’ love of tea was so great that in the years leading up to the Revolution, the per capita consumption was greater here than in England.
Of course, we all know what happened next. The heavy taxes imposed on tea by the English King George II led to a boycotting of tea. The patriotic fervor culminated in the Boston Tea Party of Dec. 16, 1773, and several other tea dumpings in major ports along the eastern seaboard. 
Renouncing tea was seen as a sign of patriotism and desire for independence, and many ladies substituted imported tea leaves with local weeds, herbs and infusions, which explains a great deal, in my opinion.
Iced tea was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. A tea vendor tired of selling his hot tea in the summer heat, so he started dropping ice in the beverages to increase sales. Refreshed fairgoers took home the idea, and the rest is history.  
Americans — always focused on faster, better and more efficient — also invented the tea bag. In 1908, a tea shipper began to ship tea samples in small individual bags to New York restaurants and found that the restaurants were preparing the hot beverage for customers without removing the tea from the bag. Exit the tea strainer.
There is a tradition in the United Kingdom that everything can be put right with a nice cup of tea, or as my Grandmother used to say, quoting the Quakers: “The cup that cheers but does not inebriate.” 
My grandmother, who lived to a ripe old age of 92, was a lifelong teetotaler. But in my opinion, she was a tea addict (pun intended) whose favorite phrase was “Shall we put the (tea) kettle on?”
We are very fortunate to have English-inspired tearooms in Savannah as well as grocery stores that stock some of the best British brands of tea. This means I can pull out my tea-making paraphernalia and indulge in the wonderful world of English teatime in my own home whenever the mood takes me.
Whether your preferred drink this festive season is hot or cold, I wish you happy holidays, and as always, God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at lesley@francis.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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