That’s (Not) the Tea

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Humans have a particular penchant for using beverages as markers of identity. I’ve seen friends get into legitimate fights over gin versus vodka martinis. I’ve read essays on how the whole country of Italy is right to not allow you milk in your coffee after 10 a.m. And of course, a “beverage girlie” is now a whole thing you can be. But no argument has had more staying power, perhaps, than that of tea versus coffee. What brown liquid you use to satiate your caffeine addiction is very important! And right now, England is apparently furious at America over tea.

Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College, just published Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea, an analysis of chemical compounds in a variety of teas and the experiments that result in what Francl claims is the perfect brew. In addition to using loose leaves and adding warm milk after the tea has steeped, she determines that tea is made better by adding salt to the cup.

Monocles dropped. People spat out their marmalade toast. Other reactions based entirely on English stereotypes happened. Coverage of Francl’s book focused on her American heritage. “A scientist from the country where you can find tea being made with lukewarm water from the tap claims to have found the recipe for a perfect cuppa,” writes the Guardian. The Telegraph asks, “What do Americans know about the British cup of tea?”

The “drama,” such that it is, even resulted in the U.S. Embassy in London issuing a press release. “Tea is an elixir of camaraderie, a sacred bond that unites us as nations,” writes a country that prefers coffee beans from the people of the Red Sea, to the country that prefers tea leaves stolen from Asia. “We cannot stand idly by as such an outrageous proposal threatens the very foundation of our Special Relationship.” The press release calls adding salt to tea “unthinkable,” and ends with a joke about how Americans microwave tea, which is also the way my Indian father makes it.

It is one of England’s great pastimes to shit on America for the quality of its tea. And sure, a bag of Lipton in a mug of hot diner water isn’t great. But just as Brits didn’t invent enjoying tea, Francl didn’t invent the idea of adding salt. Kashmiri noon chai is brewed with baking soda, and finished with milk and salt. Salt in tea has history in China and Tibet as well. It’s a tradition that existed long before the Brits even became aware of the drink and made it part of their identity. And anyway, maybe you can’t get a “perfect cuppa” in America, but I can’t get a good iced coffee in Europe either. It’s called experiencing new cultures. Deal with it.

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