The Breakfast of Disconsolates
In Part I, I discussed the nonplussed reaction of a visiting American to English serving of tea in 1832. Now we can look at the converse.
John George Wood was a noted natural historian of the Victorian era. Well-educated at Oxford (some bio here), he was a curate before turning to the natural sciences.
He joined the ranks of many Britons who made the reverse trek to the former colony, America, to “compare and contrast”. He came to give lectures, covering large swaths of the country by train.
This provided good material for magazine pieces, and one appeared in 1885 in the London-based Gossip of the Week, called “Among the Americans“.
Like many travellers from Great Britain his experiences seemed largely negative. The tone is querulous, impatient, not discerning really, but as social history of good interest.
Of American ways with tea, Rev. Wood had firm views:
One doesn’t have to know Latin to get the full meaning: the American stuff, a) had little connection to English tea, b) wasn’t particular to the breakfast hour despite the name.
Even though I knew, until recently, almost nothing about tea, I did know that breakfast tea is orange pekoe. And breakfast tea is a term widely used still in North America; I am less sure of the UK, as British blends imported here might carry a different description at home.
Still, pekoe is breakfast tea and breakfast tea is pekoe. After all, I asked the Internet if this was so, and it answered:
In fact the term “orange pekoe” identifies a leaf size or a grading measurement. Most teas labeled orange pekoe are a blend of black teas from India or Sri Lanka. The popular “Breakfast” blends – English, Irish, Scottish – are created by blending together several different types of orange pekoe black teas.
So, whatever its status as a trade description in Britain, breakfast tea here means, and has for a long time evidently, orange pekoe or a proprietary blend of same. It’s black tea of course, the main type always consumed in the U.K., too.
Coming from the main English-speaking tea country Wood’s critique deserves a hearing. So why did American tea not rate? One or more reasons may explain it.
First, coffee has always been the main caffeinated drink here, aside the soft drink/energy group. Tea is an after-ran, and maybe an indifferent quality (with price commensurate) had writ versus the better qualities available in Britain.
Second, before the tea bag was adopted, Americans probably didn’t make tea as well as the British. That still probably applies for the true brewed loose tea vs. the tea bag way.*
Third though, maybe a different blend, this Breakfast, became established in America and was simply different – not inferior to – the home article. Before globalization and ultra-efficient logistics, this was plausible, just as America evolved its own beers before craft brewing, and even after, for that matter.
However you look at it, Rev. Wood was an unhappy customer. Oh well. He wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last of the disapproving foreign tourists. That said, my experience has been that British visitors to our shores are much taken with our ways in the last generation or two.
If anything, cultural leadership in many fields has shifted here. For good, bad, or indifferent, well, that’s another matter.
Note re image: Images above was sourced from the link identified and stated in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research and purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*This is a general statement. Obviously there are many here with expertise including in various Asian communities.