After water, tea is the most frequently consumed beverage on the face of the earth. In ancient China tea was regarded as one of the seven daily necessities of life; for many Japanese it has served as a ritual element in the quest for enlightenment. For Americans it is often associated with the American Revolution; in the Middle East and North Africa it is a sign of hospitality and poured with dramatic flair; and in England afternoon tea holds an immutable place in the popular imagination. Some like it hot, some like it iced, some with milk, some with lemon. Some want tea black, some green. Some tea drinkers prefer whole leaves, while others use tea brick shavings or tea bags. Whatever form it may take and whatever context it is taken in, enjoying a cup of this ubiquitous beverage is an act performed no less than three billion times a day all around our planet.
Tea has played a variety of striking roles on the world stage—as an ancient health remedy, an element of cultural practice, a source of profound spiritual insights, but also as a catalyst for brutal international conflict, crushing taxes, and horrific labor conditions. It is thus not surprising that the theme of tea has figured prominently in the visual and literary arts. Scenes of tea embellish ceramics and textiles and are the subject of paintings and drawings, and all manner of vessels have been fashioned for the preparation, presentation, and consumption of tea. Odes are written to its perfection, and social interactions have come to be shaped by the etiquette of tea. Steeped in History opens a window onto the long cultural, culinary, and historical journey of tea and reminds us that what initially may appear to be mundane can in fact be replete with spiritual, philosophical, economic, and historical import.