I read this courtesy of NetGalley.
This is one of my favourite types of history books.
1. It’s about a fairly niche topic – the drinking of Japanese tea in America – which is shown to have connections with all sorts of issues and events across many decades. Trade connections! Racism and how attitudes towards different ethnicities develop and are deliberately cultivated! What happens to the samurai class when they’re moved out of Japanese society! Civil war and foreign war! Marketing and world expos and food regulation. It’s all here, and it’s woven in and through the overall topic beautifully.
2. There’s intriguing and what seem like weird facts. Like the idea of a punch made from ‘very strong tea’, plus a 1.25 pounds of sugar, a pint of cream AND THEN a bottle of either claret or champagne. I feel ill even thinking about it. Also, the idea that apparently people used to add Prussian blue to green tea, to give it a stronger colour??
3. There’s a personal connection to the author, and it’s neither gratuitous (I really like tea!) nor tenuous (my next door neighbour’s grandfather lived in Taiwan!) nor overly emphasised. Instead, the Hellyer family had been involved in importing “Japan tea” to America for many years, back when that was what it was called and when – as the subtitle suggests – “Japan filled America’s tea cups”. When appropriate, the Hellyer family experience is used to illuminate particular aspects of the story – Europeans as merchants in Japan, the shipping to America, and so on.
4. It’s just really nicely written. Hellyer has clearly done a lot of research, and has been very thoughtful in the way he’s put together the material. The overall story is easy to follow – but there’s no sense of a steady march towards a definite end. I mean, in one sense there is, because the reality is that American tastes in tea did change (not least away from tea). But it’s not all ‘oh woe everything was always leading to downfall’ – instead, it follows the changes in fashion and expectations and international relations and shows how those things interrelate with the drinking of, and importing/exporting of, tea.
I love history books about food that illuminate a seemingly mundane part of ordinary life and show just how complicated such things really are.