Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tea in the Time of Cholera

Nathaniel's Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of HistoryI 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.)

The author, Steven Johnson, goes on to connect a populace largely freed from waterborne disease agents because of its consumption of tea with a significant population increase in urban centers, including London, the site of the 1854 cholera epidemic.

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.


  1. Fascinating Mary.
    As a child we drank hot tea when we were sick. My mother drank it all the time. But I never had iced tea until I was 18 when I met my husband and his family. They are such huge tea drinkers, they use to live on the east coast and said soda pop was so expensive that they got use to drinking tea. Even now I would much prefer hot tea, and I drink it often though not as much as coffee. My husband drinks iced tea with his breakfast almost everymorning. And all three children are big tea drinkers hot and cold.
    Now you have me thinking I should ween myself off the hot coffee and start drinking the hot tea instead.

  2. Trez, I know that coffee has some medicinal benefits as well, but I don't know what they are b/c I couldn't drink a cup of coffee if you paid me. Why can't this happen to me with fattening and sugary foods? Oh well!

  3. Have you read Nathaniel Nutmeg? It sound like it would be a great read.

  4. Yes, I have read Nathaniel's Nutmeg. I really enjoyed it, esp. because it ties into New York City. I would highly recommend it if you like history.

  5. Thank you I will add that to my list.