Editor’s Note: This is adapted from an article that appeared in the State Journal in June 2009.
Though coffee is the preferred hot beverage for many Americans, it is tea, not coffee, that has played an important role in American history. The Chinese cultivation and export of this tiny dried leaf had ramifications that eventually kicked off the American Revolution.
People have been drinking tea for at least 12,000 years. The first references to tea as a drink come from China. The Chinese have several legends about how the people first came to steep tea leaves in hot water; some are peaceful, one is more gruesome.
This is one of the peaceful stories; research will yield others.
According to legend, Emperor Shenong was drinking a bowl of boiling water, when a few leaves blew into his water and changed its color. The emperor took a sip of the water and was pleasantly surprised by its flavor and its restorative properties from the caffeine no doubt.
From China, tea spread throughout Asia and the Middle East. The Dutch East India Company brought tea to Amsterdam in the early 1600s, exposing the people of northern Europe to the drink.
England became a tea-drinking nation in the 1660s, when the wife of Charles II, a Portuguese princess named Catherine of Braganza brought the drink to the royal court. The English people followed the styles of the Royals, and by 1750 tea was Britain’s national drink.
AMERICAN BECOMES A NATION OF TEA DRINKERS
Tea arrived in the American colonies with the early Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (now New York) in the 1650s. Settlers in the English colonies began importing tea in the 1670s. While black tea is the predominate type consumed in America today, during the colonial period and through the early 19th century, Americans only drank green tea; black tea was not available until 1830.
Tea was an expensive imported commodity in early 19th century America; as a result, it was well guarded by those who could afford it. Tea was locked up in tea caddies and the sugar served with it was locked up in sugar chests. Being able to serve tea in your home meant that you had achieved enough wealth to afford these items.
In early 19th century America, teapots were made of ceramic (“china”) or silver. Making a cup of tea was more labor-intensive than the modern habit of putting a teabag into a mug.
To make a proper cup of tea, water was first boiled over a fire in a kettle. The hot water was transferred to a teapot, swished around and then poured out. This effectively “preheated” the teapot. Loose tea was added to the pot, one teaspoon of leaves for each cup of water, plus “one for the pot.”
Hot water from the kettle was added to the teapot, and the tea leaves were left to steep in the water for three to seven minutes, depending upon the type of tea and the taste desired. A strainer was used when pouring the tea into cups, in order to prevent the leaves from escaping. Some teapots had strainers built into the neck for that purpose.
TALKING TEA AT LIBERTY HALL
Today, Liberty Hall Historic Site has many different tea sets, telling of a love of tea drinking among the Brown family of Liberty Hall and the Orlando Brown House. From the letters of Margaretta Mason Brown, the first lady of Liberty Hall, we know they often entertained by hosting guests for tea.
Margaretta wrote on December 21, 1801, that “Mr. & Mrs. Blair, Mr. & Mrs. Madison & Mr. & Mrs. Trigg took tea with me yesterday & sat near ten Oclock.”
Several of the teapots and tea sets owned by four generations of the Brown family will on display during the annual February Teas at the Orlando Brown House event Feb. 15-16. Our noon teas for adults feature soup, sandwiches, desserts, and hot teas by Candleberry’s Tea Room, Louisville Road.
New this year will be the special “Children’s Tea” 2:30 p.m. Feb. 16. Children and their adult companions can enjoy desserts, tea, and lemonade, and will receive a special gift to take home. Each tea will include the presence of a costumed interpreter portraying a member of the Brown family.
MENUS FOR ADULT TEAS
Soup: Garden Herb Tomato
Sandwiches: Candleberry’s Signature Chicken Salad, Kentucky Cucumber Spread, Country Ham on Sour Dough Biscuit
Desserts: French Chocolates, Old-Fashioned Lemon Squares, Red Velvet Valentine Cookies
Freshly-Brewed Teas: Earl Gray, Hot Cinnamon Spice, Raspberry Herbal
MENU FOR "CHILDREN'S TEAS"
Desserts: I Love Sugar Cookies, Sweetheart Brownies, Ruby Red Strawberries
Beverages: Earl Gray, Hot Cinnamon Spice, and Raspberry Herbal Tea Lemonade
Food and beverages provided by Candleberry Tea Room, Louisville Road