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“Green With Milk and Sugar” review: when Japan filled our cups of tea

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“I discovered that a surprising amount of history can be contained in a single cup,” writes Robert Hellyer in “Green With Milk and Sugar,” his heady infusion of the interwoven history of green tea in Japan, the United States. -United and in his own family. .

Mr. Hellyer, associate professor of history at the University of Wake Forest, comes from his interest in tea through the long involvement of his paternal ancestors in the production of Japanese tea and export to America, beginning by his English-born great-great-grandfather Frederick Hellyer in the late 1860s. Frederick, like successive generations of Hellyers, came to divide his time between Riverside, Illinois, and the processing plants of family tea in the Japanese port cities of Kobe and Shizuoka.

While this book’s striking cover image of a rusty tea caddy suggests cheerful read, readers should be warned that “Green With Milk and Sugar” is chock-full of data that is hardly softened by history. family (regardless of the engaging techniques of narrative non-fiction). Still, there is much to savor in this well-documented study, including archival photographs of tea fields and factories, merchants, packaging labels, and commercial advertisements.

Green with milk and sugar: when Japan filled American teacups

By Robert Hellyer

Colombia

304 pages

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A brief introduction to the drink derived from the domesticated tea tree Camellia sinensis sets the scene. Tea is grouped into three classes based on oxidation levels, with green teas being the least exposed, oolongs processed a little longer to create a yellow-brown infusion, and black teas oxidized the longest. Teas from all three categories are then ranked based on when the leaves are picked (tender spring leaves being the most popular) and the prevalence of stems in the blend. Young hyson is the highest quality green tea, followed by sencha. Souchong, which means “small” or “rare,” is the best grade of black tea.

It may surprise readers to learn that green tea, consumed hot with milk and sugar, dominated what Mr. Hellyer calls America’s “teams” for some 80 years, from the 1860s to the early 1940s, in. especially in the Midwest. Until then, the American penchant for tea had been extinguished mainly by imports from Canton. (Chinese Oolong, which today is consumed by only 0.5% of the American population, remained the favorite of New York and New England until the turn of the 20th century.) American tea underwent a radical change in 1859 after three Japanese ports were “opened” to foreign trade. The Japanese began to produce Chinese-style green teas for Americans, nicknamed “Tea from Japan”. American tea consumption has grown exponentially, and Mr. Hellyer’s ancestors were among those who helped stimulate and meet demand. The Great American Tea Company, later extended to the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., better known as A&P, was another prominent early trader.

Mr. Hellyer filters historical developments on both sides of the Pacific through the lens of tea – reading tea leaves, so to speak, “to illuminate interwoven national and international history.” It signals changing social trends in America and Japan, which have made tea, at different times, a cultural ritual, a late afternoon light meal, and a predominantly female social event. As tea has become less popular than coffee in the United States, Hellyer writes that it has become synonymous with “greater social sophistication.”

The effects of war and racism on the tea trade are recurring themes. Mr. Hellyer makes interesting comparisons between the simultaneous civil wars in America and Japan, which in the United States led to tariffs and a blockade of imports to the Confederate states. The Meiji Restoration in Japan, which followed the defeat of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, led to a dislodged and unemployed samurai class, who, with encouragement from the new central government, turned to the cultivation and production of tea for the US export market.

This market was seriously disrupted by World War II, which caused Americans to turn to black teas from India and Ceylon, resulting in a glut of green tea in Japan. This in turn led to a wartime campaign for the Japanese to drink green tea, touted for its ability to prevent scurvy due to its high vitamin C content. To alleviate food shortages, tea plants were replaced by food crops. People were also urged to collect used tea leaves to create invigorating medicinal fodder for horses.

One of the book’s darker themes deals with the use of racist tropes to manipulate the American tea market – disparagement that has found a receptive audience in a post-Reconstruction America already plagued by racial prejudice and stereotypes. Japanese green tea has gained the upper hand over Chinese teas in part because of anti-Chinese propaganda, when in fact, the Japanese tea industry has been built on the expertise of Chinese tea processors. By the end of the 19th century, South Asian black teas, long preferred in Britain, were “aggressively marketed through a campaign based on contempt for other Asians,” writes Hellyer. Chinese and Japanese tea production has been ridiculed as impure – marred by unsanitary conditions and adulteration with dyes, stems and human sweat – in contrast to the alleged cleanliness and efficiency of the mechanized factories in which teas from Ceylon and India were “carefully prepared under white supervision. ”

The Japan Central Tea Association retaliated by sending representatives to promote tea and Japanese culture at U.S. exhibitions and regional markets, many in the Midwest. Importers, including the Hellyers, have also been pushing for federal oversight and regulations to ensure quality control. But the success of Japan Tea has been considerable.

Although US imports of Japanese green tea recovered after the war, by 2005 it accounted for only 12.5% ​​of teas consumed in America and less than 1% of all US tea imports, much of it in bottles of AriZona flavored green teas. Black teas, particularly the ubiquitous orange pekoe, accounted for 87% of U.S. tea consumption, largely sweet iced teas. Green tea has remained dominant in Japan, although it is also often served in bottles and cans rather than teapots and cups.

What happened to Hellyer & Co.? Mr. Hellyer does not say. But he notes that “scented cups of this sweet stimulant (green, oolong and black teas – I love them all) have sustained me throughout the writing of this book.”

Ms. McAlpin regularly reviews books for The Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, The Los Angeles Times, and NPR.org.

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