Tea, coffee and chocolate all came to Europe during the 16th century, according to Sidney W. Mintz, professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Mintz, whose books include one on the history of sugar, will lecture on "Tea and Sympathy: The Ritualizaton of an English Custom," Wednesday, Feb. 26, at noon in the Clipper Room of Shriver Hall on the Hopkins campus.
The custom of drinking tea, which began in England as a luxury for the upper classes, is a unique phenomenon in the history of the world, Mintz says. Never before had a food that came from so far away become a daily necessity. Within 100 years it was a part of the fabric of English society - not just high society, but ordinary working class people too. Wherever the British went in the world - Kenya, Argentina, the American colonies - they took along the Union Jack, the game of cricket and tea, he adds.
A ritual is social behavior performed to achieve an end, Mintz explains. Take the custom of shaking hands, for example. The rubbing together of right hands has as little rational connection to what it accomplishes as would the rubbing together of feet. But it works, Mintz says.
Anna, Duchess of Bedford, is credited with creating the convention of afternoon tea. About 1840, she began having tea with a light snack around 4 p.m. to ward off her "sinking feelings" while waiting for a fashionably late 8 p.m. dinner.
The rites of tea - preheating the pot, using a tea cozy over the teapot to keep its contents warm, sugar cubes, dainty sandwiches, cakes and cookies and pouring from elegant silver or porcelain teapots into delicate cups - provide soul-soothing comfort and social connections that have little to do with nourishment of the body.
Counter to ritual and ceremony, America put its typically American twist on tea with the 1904 invention of the convenient tea bag and iced tea. Nearly 80 percent of all tea consumed in the U.S. is consumed over ice, a habit not duplicated anywhere else in the world, according to Tea Council of the U.S.A. Inc.
The health consciousness of Americans is cited as another factor in the beverage's increasing popularity. Tea contains no sodium, fat, carbonation or sugar, and is virtually calorie-free. Although it is considered a stimulant, a cup of tea contains about 40 milligrams of caffeine, about a third less than a cup of coffee.
Black tea - the kind most Americans and Europeans drink - contains vitaminlike compounds called flavonoids that have been linked to protection against heart attacks and strokes. Green tea, which is unoxidized, comes from the same plant as black and oolong teas and also may be related to lower risks of heart disease and cancer in Asian men who drink it.
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Homewood House Museum on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is featuring the exhibit "Traditions in Excellence: 100 Teapots from the Norwich Castle Museum" through Tuesday, March 25. For information on the exhibit or on the Mintz lecture, call 1-410-556-5589.