Why Tea?

By now, no one who reads any of my books would be surprised to find a character boiling water, then adding it to some kind of dried and otherwise prepared blend of something-or-other, waiting a short period of time, straining out the leaves, and drinking the results. Teas and tisanes appear in every story, or so it seems. If a reader assumes that I am a chronic tea-drinker, he’s correct. But there is another reason for the frequent appearances of tea.

Tea requires boiling water. Humans around the world discovered at various points in time that clean water is good. Dirty water, especially water downstream of something large and dead, is not good for your health. Now granted, before the invention of water purification, a lot of humans had far more robust internal flora and immune systems, so that they could tolerate things that would make a modern, urban human quite ill. However, people in China, South Asia, the Mediterranean, and other places discovered that boiled water tended to make you less sick. Since people rarely boiled water just for fun, given the high cost of fuel in terms of acquisition, processing (in some cases), and clean-up, teas became a way to flavor the water and justify the boiling. The herbs in teas were good for you, and had medicinal qualities (or so it was assumed) besides justifying boiling water.

In northern climes, before tea proper became trendy, brewing had a similar effect. It was far, far safer to drink beer than water. More nutritious as well in some cases. There was a good medical reason why women in Dublin’s Laying-in (maternity) hospital got a pint of Guinness (TM) per day. The iron helped them, and other nutrients didn’t hurt. But brewing equipment takes up space, and requires some time to produce the desired result. Tea is fast, especially if you have water and heat on demand.

So my characters drink tisanes and teas. They may be herbal remedies, or are believed to be herbal remedies. They may just be tea, albeit with milk such as Rada Ni Drako prefers. Or “herbal teas,” properly tisanes, made from local plants that humans have found to be safe and flavorful. Coffee plants might not travel well, but humans can and will find a way to flavor their water, and modern chemistry and toxicology make the learning curve a lot flatter (and less lethal).

Tea is comforting. There is a bit of a ritual to making it, either simple or complicated, and it gives the characters something familiar and solid. warm liquids tend to be somewhat calming, and are absorbed more quickly than cold, so hydration takes place more quickly. For someone in a new place, with new and unsettling things going on around them, the familiar steps of boil water just right, add it to the leaves, wait, strain, sip, can seem like the only safe and secure thing in their world. Add in the social signals within the character’s culture, and tea may mark out a space and time for quiet, a time to speak about important private matters, or simply a way to calm down and regroup to face the next challenge.

In a scene in the WIP, Rigi, Tomás, and Kor have tea and discuss matters. Makana listens in. For caste reasons, he prefers not to drink when Kor is drinking with the humans, even though Kor has his own personal pot, cup, and brew (which turns Rigi and Tomás’s stomachs. Staré taste buds and human do not always agree on what is piquant and what is fermented to the point of putrefaction.) Because it is an informal moment, Rigi and the others can discuss matters that might be impossible otherwise, and it gives her a way to show Tomás how fond she is of him.

Likewise Joschka and Rada. Once Joschka learns that catmint tea is unavailable (or illegal) on many worlds, he makes a point of having a few sachets of the stuff when he travels with Rada, because he knows she loves it. He prefers coffee, so she learns how to make it. It’s a small thing, but each character has observed the other and takes a step to show how much they appreciate the other. In a similar way Rada memorizes how Rahoul makes his, for those increasingly rare occasions when he appears in the lab seeking unofficial advice or reassurance. Tea bridges the gap in their ranks, at least for the time it takes to finish a pot.

Yes, I put far too much thought into things like tea. But to build a convincing world, little details like Rada’s personal tea ceremony help show her character without being didactic about “See, she needs order and comfort even though she is the embodiment of a chaos-generator. See, she’s adapted to Earth a lot more than she will admit.” Or Rigi’s mother sweeping in to sort out a social disaster, shooing out the malefactor, and calling for tea in order to create a space to discuss the problem without pressure and blame (it wasn’t Rigi’s fault.)

Pardon me. I need a refill.


4 thoughts on “Why Tea?

  1. Little details make a big difference. And it’s amazing how many things people think are “needless frippery” were actually very necessary indeed with lower levels of tech and sanitation available.

    Personally, I think society could use a bit more space to breathe, tea or otherwise! 😉

  2. Personally I am a coffee drinker, I have some Russian tea in the kitchen, and a couple times a month I will have a cup of that in the evening, or I will drink tea at a Chinese restaurant or rarely at someone else’s house, if offered. But I drink at least one pot of coffee a day, and if I have company to sit around and visit I will go through more than that.

    • For some reason I taste the bitter compounds in coffee more strongly than do most people. There are also some Russian teas that are a little much for the same reason.Tea is my default (and it’s a family thing on Dad’s side. He’s Anglo-Dutch-Scots). I think I’ve had coffee I could drink without turning it into milchkaffe (more white than black) twice. Once was this past Monday afternoon.

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