Tea, American Food and Drink, from Style Gourmet
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Tea
On the sixteenth day of December, 1773, in response to a minuscule tax on tea levied without their consent by the Parliament in London, a number of otherwise respectable citizens of Boston, dressed as Indians, forced themselves aboard a merchant ship crammed with tea and, over a period of three hours, threw 342 chests of tea into Boston harbor. The “Boston Tea Party,” which led to the American war for independence, must stand as the most exciting tea-related event in American history, at least until the invention of the first pre-flavored instant ice tea mix. Avid coffee drinkers, Americans view tea as a decidedly secondary beverage. Diners who order tea are usually provided with a mug of lukewarm water and a teabag; while coffee drinkers get enthusiastic free refills, the tea drinker may be offered more hot water at best. A high-end restaurant may present an elegant wooden box to give the diner a choice of teabags, perhaps take care to keep the water hot, and may even allow an extra teabag without charging the diner twice. American tea victories are small indeed.

Good teashops are not unknown in the United States of course. Boston’s Tealuxe, Santa Fe New Mexico’s Tea House, and Washington DC’s Ching Ching Cha (a Chinese teahouse) serve sophisticated patrons whose only desire is to take the time to enjoy a well prepared pot of hot tea made from quality loose leaves. Most teashops serve light dishes like pastries and sandwiches, and offer retail tea varieties by the pound to take home. In all venues, tea is commonly served with lemon wedges, with sugar and milk as an option.

Over the past several years, the concept of the “tea sommelier” has arisen in expensive restaurants and caterers; the term “sommelier” usually refers to a wine expert, but here the sommelier’s task is to help patrons choose appropriate teas, and to conduct tea tastings. Fine tea sales are in fact on an upswing as Americans seek more refined taste experiences, yet neither tea nor any other beverage can match the American enthusiasm for coffee. Unlike coffee, which does grow in the American state of Hawaii, all tea consumed in the United States is imported.

The Lipton and Tetley brands have long dominated the American tea market. Major British brands like Twinings, Taylors of Harrogate and Typhoo are sometimes available. American specialty lines include Harney & Sons, Upton Tea, Stash Tea, the Republic of Tea, Tazo, and Bigelow. Harney and Upton import true gourmet teas, including hard-to-find varieties from China, Sri Lanka and India, typically in loose form. Stash offers mainstays like Earl Grey, English Breakfast, and Irish Breakfast along with decaffeinated teas and herbal infusions the likes of Triple Ginseng, Mango Passionfruit, and Jasmine Blossom. Tazo (under the rubric “The Reincarnation of Tea”) gives many of its teas evocative names; its “filterbag” selection includes the opposites Awake and Calm in addition to the conventional Earl Grey and Darjeeling. Bigelow is the marketer of the Constant Comment brand as well as a full line of teas and herbal infusions.

Chai—the word for tea in a number of south Asian languages—refers to a popular tea and spice mixture sold in specialty coffee shops, in teabag form, and as a bottled soft drink.

If tea has enjoyed any victory over coffee it is on the cold front; iced coffee is a novelty, yet iced tea has become an extremely popular drink, especially in the summer. It is available freshly brewed, pre-brewed, in instant mixes, from iced tea machines in restaurants, and as a bottled soft drink in any number of flavor combinations (typically with fruit juice). Southerners tend to prefer their iced tea on the sweet side while in many other areas of the country it is enjoyed “black.” Iced forms of tea have been enjoyed in the United States since colonial times, especially in the south, though the beverage really came into its own, as did so many other American foods and beverages, when it was popularized at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Special iced tea glasses, spoons and narrow lemon forks were in use by the 1920s. The “Long Island Iced Tea” is a potent alcoholic cocktail made to resemble iced tea (down to the lemon wedge); not a drink for the timid.

Americans call hot herbal infusions “herbal teas,” or “herb teas” though these are not actually made from the tea plant itself’ the “h” in the word “herb” is silent in its American pronunciation. Colorado’s Celestial Seasonings was a pioneer in this market and is the nation’s largest provider of specialty and herbal teas; the string-less teabags, following the lead of their signature brand Sleepytime, are sold in colorful boxes famous for their engaging artwork, homey quotations and memorable names: Red Zinger, Mandarin Orange Spice, Roastaroma, Tropic of Strawberry, Tension Tamer. Nearly all tea packagers now offer herbal and fruit flavored varieties.

Health and natural products stores, and some supermarkets, sell lines of herbal infusions designed to help the body deal with various health issues and illnesses: breathing difficulties, digestion problems, mood and anxiety, women’s issues. The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigates health claims quite carefully; these infusions generally come with a printed disclaimer that they are “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease” and that they have “not been evaluated by the FDA.”


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