I admit to being fascinated with the subject of how commodities, such as tea and spices, end up in my kitchen half a world away from the places where they were grown. On my bookshelf is a book called Nathaniel’s Nutmeg that I found fascinating. As the title suggests, is a book about nutmeg, specifically the spice from the Dutch possession of the island of Run that involves global intrigue between the Dutch and British empires.
Being a tea drinker, I will read just about any article or book about that subject. I wasn’t always a tea drinker. When I lived on the East Coast, I put away ten cups of coffee a day easily. My mother was a Maxwell House lady, “Good to the Last Drop,” and so was I. I know people are probably shuddering at the idea of instant coffee, but I loved it. But then I moved to Texas, the land of iced tea, and things started to change. Realizing that I was consuming an awful lot of caffeine, I switched to Sanka. (Do I hear more groans from the audience?) I hated it. Little did I know that when I quit on decaffeinated coffee that I had drunk my last cup of coffee and that was more than thirty years ago.
For centuries, people knew that tea had medicinal qualities (thanks to the Chinese and Indians who are major source of tea leaves). Because of the tannic acid, my sister used to put a used tea bag in her son’s diapers to help with rashes—it worked. But I had further proof of its healing powers when I read The Ghost Map:
The population growth [in England] coincided with the mass adoption of tea as the de facto national beverage… A luxury good at the start of the century, tea had become a staple even of working-class diets by the 1850s… It was a healthy lifestyle choice, given the alternatives [beer and gin]. Brewed tea possesses several crucial antibacterial properties that help ward off waterborne diseases [such as cholera]; the tannic acid released in the steeping process kills off those bacteria that haven’t already perished during the boiling of the water. The explosion of tea drinking in the late 1700s was, from the bacteria’s point of view, a microbial holocaust. Physicians observed a dramatic drop in dysentery and child mortality during the period. (The antiseptic agents in tea could be passed on to infants through breast milk.)
Do not mistake these multiple trends—the energy flows of metropolitan growth, the new taste for tea, the nascent, half-formed awareness of mass behavior—for mere historical background. The clash of microbe and man that played out on Broad Street for ten days in 1854 was itself partly a consequence of each of these trends…
So the next time you are feeling poorly, look in your pantry for something that might possibly help you more than any over-the-counter medication. A cuppa might be all you need.