Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach


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Tea as a Gateway to Food Culture and Slow Food

This post will take you through two opposing aspects of food culture in the United States, and explain how I think tea fits more into one side that the other.  It also explains my desire and intention to use RateTea as a platform for shaping the tastes of Americans in the direction of one of these types of food culture and away from the other.

Bland or Strong, Fast Food, and Corporate Influence: The Desert of American Food Culture

There is a degree to which the United States is viewed by the international community as a desert of food culture.  When dining at a Vietnamese restaurant with my friend Brent the other day, he remarked that most of what he thinks of as American food is either bland, or hits you in the face with strong flavors, like very sweet or very sour.  I’ve heard a lot of my friends and relatives complain about the food culture in America, but I think it’s more telling how people from other cultures perceive the U.S.

I once attended an event hosted at the International Center at Franklin and Marshall college, in which U.S. students and international students came together to discuss food culture, with a particular focus on how each of them perceived the others’ cultures.  Although there were many interesting aspects of the discussion, the one trend that stuck out to me the most was that, when foreign students were asked what they thought of as American food, the response was always something similar:

Fast food.  Burgers.  French fries.  Soft drinks.  McDonald’s.

A McDonalds storefront in Morocco showing Arabic text on its sign

A McDonald’s in Casablanca, Morocco.  With such a global presence, it is no wonder that McDonalds is what many people around the world think of when they think of food culture in the United States.  Photo by Soman, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

On some level, I’m really saddened by this impression.  I think of this particular type of fast food as one of the worst aspects of American culture–one of the least healthy (with its huge portions of factory-farmed meat and refined carbs), one of the least sustainable, and one of the most devoid of culture.  Rather than being formed from a rich and continually evolving culinary tradition perfected and passed down through generations, American fast food is something that I see as originating in corporations and being motivated primarily by profit rather than holistic health and culinary mastery.  American fast food is a recent phenomenon, less than 100 years old.  The corporate machinery of the fast food restaurants can spin out of control, overpowering the original culinary traditions behind the restaurants.  As an example of this, I read that the famous fast food icon Colonel Sanders, who originally founded KFC, later sued KFC for using his image on products that he did not approve of because he considered them poor quality.

This type of food culture though is unfortunately not limited to fast food, nor is the corporatization of food or the industrialization of the food supply.  There are many subcultures within America where something similar to fast food really is what people see as “food”.  I often encounter such food at church events, like outdoor BBQ’s or other events…white bread buns, hot dogs and hamburgers taken out of packages, iceberg lettuce, and the like.  To me, it’s a food desert.  If it’s bad enough, I sometimes even choose to go hungry and eat before or after such events.  It is bad enough that it has sometimes been a wedge that has divided me from communities that I would otherwise want to participate in, like a church where I enjoyed the community and found meaning in the spiritual message.

A selection of lettuces with whitish iceberg lettuce heads on the left

Iceberg lettuce, pictured on the left, is an example of the impacts of an industrialized food supply. According to the University of Illinois Extension, Iceberg lettuce is the most widely-consumed lettuce in the U.S., but its popularity is due primarily to the fact that it ships well: it is mostly water and is much lower in nutrients than other lettuces, shown on the right.

Where does tea fit into this picture?  It doesn’t have much of a place here.  Tea is a subtle beverage.  It’s primarily aromatic, it doesn’t offer the same caffeine kick that coffee does, and the flavor, even of bold teas, is subdued compared to coffee (or soft drinks).  Culturally, tea is associated with slowing down, taking a reflective break, more than speeding up or ordering food on the run.  And artisan tea, the sort that I love to drink, and am looking to promote through my work on RateTea, has even less of a place in this culture.  In short, I think tea, especially the sort of tea I am most passionate about, is more about slow food than fast food.

The Food Culture in the United States is Actually Very Diverse

If you found the section above a bit depressing, don’t despair: the food and drink culture in the United States is much more diverse than the first impression of the international students above suggests.  The U.S. is a hotspot of ethnic diversity, and with that diversity comes a richness in culinary traditions.  Virtually everywhere I have ever lived in the U.S., even in smaller towns, I’ve found numerous ethnic restaurants.  I once drove across the country myself, and have taken numerous other road trips, and I’ve often been surprised at where I encounter little ethnic enclaves, often accompanied by restaurants that I end up giving 5 stars on Yelp.

A bowl of rice and a bowl of bibimbap, showing mixed vegetables, and an egg, with grated seaweed on top

Bibimbap, a mainstay of Korean cuisine, is now one of my favorite foods; I had never tried this dish, or any Korean food, until I was 25.  This dish is typically served in Korean restaurants with barley tea (mugicha/boricha).

Mexican and Chinese food are available virtually everywhere in the U.S., and while they aren’t always “authentic”, they sometimes can be.  When I’ve lived in larger metro areas, I’ve been surprised at the level of diversity I encountered.  Many of these types of foods were initially a bit alien to me; Korean food, pictured above, is a good example.  The first time I ate it, it was a bit intimidating.  I needed to develop a taste for it, but I have come to really love it, to the point where I often actively crave Korean dishes, and even keep a jar of kimchi in my fridge.

I’ve eaten at Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants–multiple of each–and Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Japanese, and Korean restaurants.  Indian Restaurants.  Afghan, Lebanese, Israeli, Moroccan restaurants.  In Chinese cuisine, I’ve eaten at restaurants specializing in Sichuan, Cantonese, Yunnan, Taiwanese, and Liaoning regional cuisine.  I’ve eaten at restaurants specializing in New Mexican food, Guadalajara-style food, and food from South Mexico, as well as California-style Mexican food, which is its own unique fusion tradition.  I’ve had many forms of Latino food, from Puerto Rican to Columbian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian.  I’m sure I’m forgetting quite a few ethnic cuisines in this list.

A bowl of Sichuan dry pot, with mixed vegetables and chicken in a metal bowl, and a white bowl of seafood tofu soup

Dry pot, and seafood tofu soup, at a Sichuan restaurant in West Philly. Of course it is served with tea, visible on the left; jasmine tea or oolong are typical types of tea served with this sort of meal.

Note that already I’ve already mentioned some regional cuisines peculiar to and originating in the U.S., in the different variants of Mexican food that occur on the U.S. side of the border.  The U.S. also is the origin of Cajun cooking, and southern cooking or “soul food”, which incorporates elements from West African traditions–as I realized when I first ate proper West African food and tasted many of the same spices, ingredients, and methods of food preparation.

What is the difference between these rich, complex traditions, and the more uniform fast food traditions that the foreign students mentally identified as the food culture of the United States?  I think the distinction here is subtle and hard to pin down, but I think it has to do both with the traditions of preparing the food, and with how fast the people are eating the food, and whether or not they are paying attention to how the food tastes.  I found that many of these foods were initially a little strange to me, and in different ways.  The Sichuan dry pot, pictured above, was so intensely spicy and pain-inducing that I could barely eat it the first time I tried it.  Yet I found myself craving it and now it’s my favorite item on the menu at the restaurant where I first ordered it.  What made it so enjoyable though wasn’t the volume of hot pepper–it was the nuance…a little flavor of anise here, the cilantro leaf on top, and the wonderful aromatic quality of the Sichuan peppercorn (before it numbs your mouth!) are what keep me coming back to that dish.

I don’t expect everyone to like the particular dishes or types of cuisine that I like best, but I notice that if people start paying attention to their food, they naturally gravitate more towards “slow food”.  And with this change in focus, I think comes an increase in health and well-being, as well as a great improvement in the joy and pleasure that comes with both eating and preparing food.  A couple of my friends have recently read the book Health at Every Size, and that book provides a compelling argument that a more mindful approach to eating has compelling benefits to health.  There was also a fascinating study of attitudes towards food in different countries, and their implications for health and dieting; this study examines what it calls the “French paradox”, that Americans think more about the health impacts of their food yet end up eating a less healthy diet, whereas French people think about health less, and focus on enjoying their food, and end up eating a much healthier diet.  These observations have led me to believe that a shift away from generic fast food culture and towards a richer food culture could have sweeping benefits for society.

Tea as a Gateway to Food Culture

I think there is a degree to which tea, especially if you drink it unsweetened, forces you to develop a level of nuance in appreciation of food and drink that naturally nudges people in the direction of slow food and traditional food cultures.

Most tea doesn’t hit you in the face with the strong flavors that my friend Brent referenced.  Some of my other friends have jokingly remarked that tea is little more than “flavored water”.  In some sense, I agree.  In order to really appreciate tea, you need to seek out its flavors a bit, paying attention to what you are sensing as you are drinking it.

The dominant flavor sensation when drinking tea is usually bitterness, a flavor that has little role in the generic “American palate” referenced at the beginning of this post, the one that demands strong sweet, sour, or salty flavors.  Even in the sweetest or sourest teas, or the teas with the greatest savory or umami flavor, these other flavors are subdued, and easy to overlook if you are used to drinking something like soft drinks or even black coffee.

Loose-leaf green tea with very curly leaves

Loose-leaf Bi Luo Chun from TeaVivre; when describing this tea as “sweet” or “tangy”, I am describing very subtle flavors that, compared with something like fruit juice, could easily be overlooked.

Another key aspect of tea is that its aroma is more interesting than its flavor.  Flavor is itself pretty limited–the human taste buds are only able to identify sweet, bitter, sour, salty, and savory (umami) flavors.  It is the aroma that makes food and drink truly come alive, and develop into complex culinary traditions.  I think that tea has the potential to nudge people in the direction of a more nuanced slow food culture in part by getting people to focus on aroma.  When people focus on aroma, it opens up the door to using herbs and spices, as well as the many vegetables that have subtle flavors but interesting aromas.

One of my goals and hopes with RateTea is to encourage people to start paying attention to how their tea tastes and smells.  My goal is that by writing about the flavor and aromas of tea, and by reading what others write, it will change how people think about and experience food and drink in general, and that this will push them more in the direction of slow food.

My Story of Discovery: Beer, Not Tea

As much as I wish I could tell a personal story about how tea opened me up to experiencing food and drink in a more nuanced way, I think it was actually beer, more than tea, that did this for me, although tea certainly played an important role alongside beer.

An attractive young man and young woman sitting in a brewpub in front of a sampler of six beers of different colors ranging from dark to light

My girlfriend Kelsey, and one of our friends, sampling beer at Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia.  Incidentally, these people are both reviewers on RateTea, and, like me, both enjoy sampling beer as well as tea.

I remember sampling beer as a kid; my parents would pour me a tiny little glass, or let me sip it, telling me: “This is beer.  It tastes bitter, so you probably won’t like it at first, but if you keep trying it, you’ll develop a taste for it.”  And develop a taste I did.  By the time I graduated college, I loved beer, and began seeking out craft-brews.  I fell in love with Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio.  I began rating beers on RateBeer, to keep track of which ones I liked.

I think beer is actually very similar to tea in its potential to nudge people in the direction of nuance.  As with tea, the dominant flavor in most beer is bitterness, and the other flavors are more subdued.  And, just with tea, the aroma plays a key role in distinguishing between the finer nuances of different beers.  Just like pure teas are able to produce an astonishing variety of aromas, qualities suggesting cocoa, or wintergreen, citrus, mint, malt, orchid, apricot, and all sorts of other aromas, pure beers, brewed with only barley, yeast, water, and hops, are able to produce all sorts of fascinating aromas, resembling various fruits, grassy or herbaceous characteristics, nutty and caramel tones, and many other qualities.

I think that it was the process of rating and reviewing beers, actually writing things about what I was drinking, that took me to the next level in terms of perception of food and drink.

The Potential of Beer vs Tea to Catalyze Change: How These Beverages Differ

I think in the long-run, tea may have an even greater potential than beer to catalyze the sort of cultural transformation in perception of food and drink that I outlined above, for several reasons.  One is that tea tends to be consumed more often throughout the day, and in different contexts, than beer.  I.e. people generally only consume beer in the evening, whereas they often consume tea several times throughout the day.  The alcohol in beer makes it less appropriate as a beverage for a broad range of situations.  Another issue is that there is a degree to which the alcohol in beer seems to have an effect that is at odds with the finer nuances of appreciating food and drink: while one can easily appreciate the first or second beer in a more nuanced way, after that it begins to go downhill.  I’ve heard serious beer connoisseurs remark on this phenomenon–and how they often like to sample the most nuanced beers first in an evening for this reason.

Yet another reason is that people see much more likely to drink tea than beer when in a reflective mood, such as when taking notes in a journal, or taking a break from work, as well as sipping tea while at a desk or computer, and both of these situations lend themselves more to the sort of exploration of nuances than the contexts (sitting at a bar with friends, or in a more party type atmosphere) in which people most often enjoy beer.  The caffeine and other psychoactive chemicals in tea, like theanine, also seem to lend themselves to a state of mind which favor focus, reflection, and awareness.  And the culture of tea also is tied to mindfulness and reflection.

What do you think?

  • Do you think my analysis of the two opposing facets of American food culture is accurate?
  • Is the idea of “slow food” something you think about much?
  • Do you think RateTea will be able to nudge casual tea drinkers in the direction of paying more attention to their food and drink, much in the same way I experienced such a shift in my perception as I started using RateBeer?
  • Do you think that, in the long-run, tea has greater potential than beer to catalyze a cultural shift in the direction of paying more attention to the finer nuances of food and drink?


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Why Is Sustainability Important? Stories from Childhood of Building Blocks and Cemeteries

This post is loosely inspired by my original post: Sustainability: Why Is It Important For Tea?

Sustainability is a key driving value in my life, and I included sustainability in the purpose statement of RateTea.  It’s an idea that guides choices in virtually all parts of my life.  What exactly is sustainability?  It’s not the same as environmentalism, a distinction I’ll explain later.  Wikipedia has a long page on sustainability, but it starts with a very simple sentence:

Sustainability is the capacity to endure.

Sustainability is an idea that captures whether something can be continued indefinitely, without adverse consequences or depleted resource forcing you to stop what you’re doing.  Using up a non-renewable resource is obviously unsustainable, but there are many other reasons that can cause something to be unsustainable–basically, any practical constraint that forces you to stop.  Sustainability is a working concept–it’s about what you can keep doing.  Something is unsustainable if you can’t keep doing it.

Sustainability is a simple idea, easy for children to understand.

I remember thinking about sustainability as a kid, long before I had a name to attach to the concept.  As a very young kid, I naturally encountered limits.  I would regularly play with wooden blocks, and I learned that there’s only so high you can stack individual blocks before they become unstable and fall over.  Stacking blocks on top of each other is unsustainable.  The higher you want to stack them, the broader a base of supporting blocks you need.  Because there’s a limited supply of blocks, there’s a limit on how high you can build.

It’s such a simple idea, but it’s at the heart of deep ecological concepts, like how a food web is structured, or the idea of the carrying capacity of an ecosystem.

Wooden blocks a lot like the ones I played with as a child.  Photo by Belinda Hankins Miller, Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Wooden blocks a lot like the ones I played with as a child. Photo by Belinda Hankins Miller, Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Another idea I remember thinking about as a kid, that got me thinking about sustainability, was the idea of cemeteries.  I saw a lot of cemeteries as a kid, and I noticed that people seemed to view them with reverence, leaving them as-is and protecting them from development even as everything around them changed.  Somewhere along the line, I asked the question: since people keep dying, wouldn’t cemeteries eventually fill up and wouldn’t we run out of space to bury people in?  My parents explained to me that they do, and that cremation represents an alternative to being buried and taking up space in a cemetery.  The cultural practice of burial in cemeteries is unsustainable.

There was a Guardian article about how the UK is already running out of space in cemeteries, in which the head of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management acknowledges: “Cemeteries are unsustainable.”

Woodland Cemetery in Philadelphia

One of my photos of Woodland Cemetery in Philadelphia.  Cemeteries have gotten me thinking about sustainability in multiple ways: first as a kid, and later, as I conducted a bird survey of this cemetery, for eBird.

To show you how complex sustainability can get, even though the idea of a cemetery with burial of people is inherently unsustainable, the cemetery pictured above is promoting a different sort of sustainability–as an island of greenspace in a highly developed urban area, it provides valuable habitat for birds.  As a volunteer surveyer for eBird, I gathered a year’s worth of data on this site, surveying it weekly (gathering several data points for most weeks), allowing eBird to produce graphs of what species can be found at this site year-round.  The results are exciting; I and a few other birders have currently recorded 109 species of birds found in this cemetery.  View the data for yourself.

The lesson that I take from this is that the world is complex, and even if something is unsustainable for one reason, it might provide some other benefit which might promote a different sort of sustainability.  In this case, the space used up for a cemetery created a protected greenspace, effectively immune from urban development, that ended up providing greater ecological value for birds than the surrounding urban area.

The Difference Between Sustainability And Environmentalism

As I explained above, sustainability is a very simple concept, one that I think even young children can grasp with ease.  But it can be very complex to implement.  Part of the reason for this is the fact that humans depend on their environment for food, clean air and water, and other products and ecosystem services.

Environmentalism, on the other hand, is a little trickier to grasp; look at how there’s a lack of a clear definition in Wikipedia’s article on environmentalism.  What exactly is “the environment” anyway?  And how do you preserve and protect it?  I think that in order to grasp what environmentalism is in a meaningful way, one needs a certain degree of scientific and/or cultural knowledge…central concepts in environmentalism are ecosystems, biodiversity, and cycles of water, air, and energy.  Each of these concepts takes a certain degree of knowledge and intellectual sophistication to even partially understand.

There are a lot of examples of humans misunderstanding how to protect natural ecosystems; for example, for many years we suppressed forest fires in much of North America, thinking it was protecting the forests; now we know that fires are a natural part of the cycle of life for many wild ecosystems, and that fire suppression can cause great damage in the long-run, sometimes culminating in catastrophic wildfires of unprecedented scale.

Knowing how to protect the environment can be subtle; here, an introduced species, Chickory, is supporting a native insect pollinator.

Knowing how to protect the environment can be subtle; here, an introduced species, Chickory, is supporting a native insect pollinator of the Agapostemon genus.  I took this photo inside Woodland Cemetery, not far from the other picture above.

Sustainability encompasses environmental issues, because humans depend on the environment, so if a practice damages or destroys aspects of the environment that we depend on, it’s not sustainable.  But this is only one part of sustainability.  Practices can be unsustainable for human reasons, such as if a particular policy or practice causes political unrest or social upheaval.  So the two concepts, while they are closely related, are definitely distinct and to some degree independent of each other.

Does this have anything to do with tea?

I think the answer to this question is: “Yes and No.”  So far, I haven’t talked about tea at all.  This is because my reasons for believing in and living by the idea of sustainability have nothing to do with tea.  If tea did not exist, I would be just as committed to sustainability as I am now.

But at the same time, sustainability has everything to do with tea; the way I see it, sustainability has everything to do with anything that involves human choices…it’s a fundamental, common sense idea that informs every aspect of my life, so of course I want to apply it to tea.

How does sustainability manifest in my thinking about tea?

This is a potentially boundless question, but some of the ideas I think of most often are:

  • Using (and promoting) loose-leaf tea as a way of minimizing packaging; choosing loose-leaf as often as practically possible
  • Being aware of, and raising awareness of, issues of biodegradability and compostability of tea packaging; seeking out companies that use packaging with less environmental impact
  • Looking at how tea is produced, and looking at its impacts on the environment; buying and highlighting teas that are produced in the most environmentally-sustainable ways
  • Looking at the economics of tea production, and how it affects the communities in which tea is produced; buying teas that promote sustainable economics in the communities of production
  • Thinking about how we enjoy tea, and its impacts on mind, body, and culture; enjoying tea with others, relaxing and clearing my mind as I enjoy tea alone, so as to keep a healthy mind and promote a sustainable culture
  • Thinking about what incentives the structure and design of RateTea sets up, so that it can have as positive an influence on sustainability in the tea industry as possible

What do you think?

  • Is sustainability also a driving value in your life?
  • How do you think about sustainability as it pertains to the world of tea?  Are there any major ideas that you think I missed in my list above?
  • How did you come to embrace the idea of sustainability?  Was it common-sense to you, and was sustainability merely a word that you assigned to a concept you already understood and were committed to?  What life experiences or ideas led you to understand the importance of this concept?
  • Do you make a distinction between environmentalism and sustainability?  Can you think of examples of aspects of sustainability that have less to do with environmentalism?  Can you think of any aspects of environmentalist movements that are perhaps unsustainable or divorced from the idea of sustainability?