Saturday, June 02, 2007

The simpering innocence of cocoa

From Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea:

Like all good things of the world, the propaganda of Tea met with opposition. Heretics like Henry Saville (1678) denounced drinking it as a filthy custom. Jonas Hanway (Essay on Tea, 1756) said that men seemed to lose their stature and comeliness, women their beauty through the use of tea. Its cost at the start (about fifteen or sixteen shillings a pound) forbade popular consumption, and made it "regalia for high treatments and entertainments, presents being made thereof to princes and grandees." Yet in spite of such drawbacks tea-drinking spread with marvellous rapidity. The coffee-houses of London in the early half of the eighteenth century became, in fact, tea-houses, the resort of wits like Addison and Steele, who beguiled themselves over their "dish of tea." The beverage soon became a necessity of life--a taxable matter. We are reminded in this connection what an important part it plays in modern history. Colonial America resigned herself to oppression until human endurance gave way before the heavy duties laid on Tea. American independence dates from the throwing of tea-chests into Boston harbour.

There is a subtle charm in the taste of tea which makes it irresistible and capable of idealisation. Western humourists were not slow to mingle the fragrance of their thought with its aroma. It has not the arrogance of wine, the self-consciousness of coffee, nor the simpering innocence of cocoa. Already in 1711, says the Spectator: "I would therefore in a particular manner recommend these my speculations to all well-regulated families that set apart an hour every morning for tea, bread and butter; and would earnestly advise them for their good to order this paper to be punctually served up and to be looked upon as a part of the tea-equipage." Samuel Johnson draws his own portrait as "a hardened and shameless tea drinker, who for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of the fascinating plant; who with tea amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning."

Charles Lamb, a professed devotee, sounded the true note of Teaism when he wrote that the greatest pleasure he knew was to do a good action by stealth, and to have it found out by accident. For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal. It is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humour itself,--the smile of philosophy. All genuine humourists may in this sense be called tea-philosophers,--Thackeray, for instance, and of course, Shakespeare. The poets of the Decadence (when was not the world in decadence?), in their protests against materialism, have, to a certain extent, also opened the way to Teaism. Perhaps nowadays it is our demure contemplation of the Imperfect that the West and the East can meet in mutual consolation.

I highly recommend Hanway's Essay on Tea if you have not read it...

Given the choice between tea and coffee, I always want to say "Both!"--you know, a cappuccino with a tea chaser, or whatever. I don't really see why I have to choose one or the other as a permanent preference! However it must be said that though coffee is the more intense and useful stimulant, tea is perhaps dearer to my heart--I can imagine cutting out coffee, but I would desperately miss tea--in this sense it's like cats and dogs--really I am fond of both, and of all sorts of other animals--but if it really came down to it, cats seem indispensible to me in a way dogs are not (personally, to me, that is--truth is disputable, you know, taste is not). There is indeed a subtle charm in the fragrance of tea...

NB we know from The Rape of the Lock that in 1711 in Britain "tea" was probably mostly pronounced "tay": "Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey, / Dost sometimes Counsel take — and sometimes Tea."

My goal for the weekend is to recover from acute overwork-induced insomnia and try and become calm--expect some more sustained blogging in the next thirty-six hours as a recuperative measure before I take a deep breath and plunge back into maniacal work...

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