I haven’t disappeared; I have been traveling a lot for family illness. I’m finding rhythm again, so I think I’ll be posting again soon.
It’s been a challenging week, but tea has been my companion. At the beginning of the month, I wondered if I would be able to stay interested for 31 days. The more I learn, the more curious I am. This little challenge will stick with me for a long time.
Little tea factoid of the week
Tea is like wine: there are many different cultivars (cultivated varieties) and teas taste different when grown in different soils and in different weather. Like wine, teas that grow in challenging environments gain interesting flavors; many famous growing regions in China, India, and Taiwan are over a mile in elevation.
Unlike wine, tea can be picked multiple times per year. Darjeeling autumn crescendo is the fourth and final picking of the year. For various teas, there are spring pickings, summer pickings, monsoon pickings, and winter pickings. Some teas are made only from specific leaves; Pai Mu Tan white tea is made with the bud and the first two leaves. Some premium teas are even more selective.
With all these variables, there are many ways to make a tea. 31 days starts to seem like not so many days to fill.
The tea consumption continues! This weekend I went to the shop and got adventurous. It’s going to be a flavorful December! Some days I revisit an old stand-by, some days I try something brand new. Every day I learn something new about tea. This week, I tried straight Assam tea for the first time, and had my first Taiwanese and Thai teas.
Little tea factoid of the week
Tea all comes from the camellia sinensis plant. There are two subspecies: var. sinensis and var. assamica. Sinensis is the Chinese version that has been cultivated in China for many centuries. Assamica was first globally known in 1823, found in eastern India.
Before the discovery of Assam tea, China supplied Britain with tea. Britain really wanted tea, but China only wanted silver bullion in return. Britain began introducing opium to China to create demand for a product more easy to produce than bullion. Between 1821 and 1837, British delivery of opium increased fivefold. During this time, Britain also began extensive tea plantations in India. Britain got their tea fix and China went on to suffer the Opium Wars.
Today, Assam tea is still grown in the Assam region of India. It’s maltier in flavor, and if you’ve had English Breakfast tea, you’ve probably had a blend with some Assam tea. I don’t drink my tea with milk, but Assam tea is supposed to be especially good with it.
It’s been an exciting week of teas. Someone said my project sounded like an advent calendar, so I decided I could make that work. I’ll continue to fill it out as the month proceeds. I’ve been posting my drink every day on Twitter; you can find my feed on the right side of my home page.
Little Tea factoid of the week
Do you know what oolong tea is? Oolong tea is partially-oxidized tea. When you leave an apple on a table and it turns brown, that’s oxidation. Green tea is unoxidized, and black tea is fully oxidized. (The oxidation process is fancier than letting it sit out, but that’s the basic chemistry.) Oolong is the tea in between. There are green oolongs (less oxidized) and black oolongs (more oxidized). Above all else, oolongs are delicious.
I love tea. Even in elementary school I began the day with tea; when I was little I drank herbal and eventually I transitioned to true-blue camellia sinensis. Today I drink about 3 liters of tea every day. It starts and ends and fills my day with joy. When my stomach was upset, when I was on a restricted medical diet—tea was there. On my desk right now I have a Darjeeling 2nd Flush black tea and a sweet Genmaicha green tea (green tea with roasted rice in it). I am drinking English breakfast tea with rose that I brought from home.
Only recently did I seek to learn more about tea. I knew I liked black teas and smoky green teas and, with that constraint, I’d go to the tea shop, sniff around (literally), and pick out some winners. I realized that, other than the flavor, I didn’t know anything about the teas I was drinking. What made them different? Could I find more teas that I would love if I could understand my tastes better? I bought a copy of Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties, from which I learned about where tea is grown, what kinds of tea each country grows, and how they differ.
As with everything, I get into habits with my tea drinking. Lately, I drink English breakfast tea (EBT!) with rose most mornings. For a strong treat, I drink New Vithanakande Ceylon black tea. For a fancy treat, I drink Yunnan Golden Buds black tea. For a mellow treat, I drink Tie Guan Yin Oolang tea. My local tea shop, New Mexico Tea Company, is wonderful.
So this December I plan to drink a different tea every day. December is a wonderful time to drink warm drinks. Tea is a calorie-free treat in a season filled with pies and cookies and roasts. And tea is delicious and it’s a good way to try new things.
Suggestions (especially of fancy blacks) and fellow tea drinkers are welcome! Happy drinking!
I recently finished Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. This 850 page tome describes Antebellum religious thought, the communication and transportation revolution, political transition, sectionalism, international policy, and more. It also includes brief descriptions of dozens of interesting Americans through this time period. This macroscopic and microscopic approach painted a vivid picture of life at that time. Good books take time to digest. I still imagine myself in that era; I still extract bits of our current era that evolved from then or remind me of then.
Let me highlight some macroscopic and microscopic points that resonated with me.
Big Picture: The Second Great Awakening
Spurred by advances in communication and transportation, the US experienced a transformation in religion. I drowned in terminology; there’s the congregationalists, the unitarians and the trinitarians, the post- and pre-millennials, the high and low Episcopalians, and the anti-mission Methodists. There were the Utopian societies such as the Owenites, the Associationists, the Amanans (a refrigerator brand!), and the Perfectionists (creators of Oneida silverware!). (My favorite podcast BackStory has a great episode about the history of utopias that covers several of these.)
I’d heard of the Second Great Awakening but wasn’t very interested. We have our evangelical movement today; I assumed it was similar, but they are so different. The Second Great Awakening spurred Abolitionism, literacy and education movements, and the first glimmers of the suffrage movement. Its ideal was self-improvement. Great Awakening thought led to the invention of the penitentiary, where criminals would improve themselves through penitence. Likewise, asylums were a creation of thoughts from the Second Great Awakening; although they seem brutal and cruel now, sending troubled people to (hopefully) peaceful shelters, asylums, was far kinder than locking them away. These ideas were so revolutionary that visiting them once was a form of tourism (see the first segment of this BackStory episode on vacations).
Big Picture: Slavery and White Supremacy
The more history I read, the more I see the centrality of white supremacy in our country. Slavery warped everything about the south, and consequently, many aspects of the country. It led to censorship of the mail. It led to the Congressional gag rule, which forbade discussion of petitions about slavery. (See the detail below of how John Quincy Adams got rid of the gag rule.) It led the south to oppose infrastructure investments for fear that such programs would give the federal government too much power. The resultant lack of economic diversification made it impossible for the south to ever consider compromise.
Slavery held an iron-lock on the Democratic party, the party that won every election from 1828 through 1856 but two (the two elected Whig presidents both died in office and are the shortest and third shortest presidencies). To win the party nomination, a candidate needed 2/3 approval, which gave southern states a veto.
I found the passage pictured below most resonant of all. The passage suggests that, had Henry Clay won the election of 1844, the Civil War might have been avoided. Clay was the famous architect of 1820’s Missouri Compromise and 1850’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. After White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (in 2017) suggested that the Civil War occurred due to a lack of compromise, the passage struck me even more. Howe suggests that the war could have been averted–if the south had compromised. In this case, compromise would have been to accept federal support for infrastructure and gradual compensated emancipation. The book is riddled with the various compromises that the north acceded to. Eventually it was the north’s growth in population (due to the industrial revolution that they embraced and the south didn’t) that led them to be able to override the southern lock. Because the south had never compromised in the 35 years of the cotton market boom, they couldn’t accept the change in national power.
Yes, this is vastly simplified. Such “what ifs” fascinate me; how can I not see science fiction?
Detail: John Quincy Adams single-handedly destroyed the Gag Rule through sheer force of personality
In January 1842, former president and now Whig congressman John Quincy Adams was censured for presenting a petition opposing slavery. For a weeks, he grandstanded in his own defense, embarrassing his prosecutors. (And “ruining” the career of chief prosecutor Thomas Marshall.) Rather than risk another week, the motion to censure was dropped. Adams then laid forth an additional 200 anti-slavery petitions. Shortly thereafter, the Gag Rule was officially rescinded. The Gag Rule forbade discussion of petitions against slavery from 1836-1844.
Detail: Margaret Fuller–feminist, editor, bad-ass
The little town of Concord, Massachusetts produced a lot of famous names in the 1830s– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thorough, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott, to name a few. But the Transcendentalist that captured my imagination was Margaret Fuller. She wrote that women should live for themselves rather than for the sake of men (a new idea at the time, and one that we sometimes still seem to have trouble embracing). She wrote that women needed more avenues of opportunity to develop their talents, writing “let them be sea-captains, if they will.” She became an editor and writer at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. During the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, she went to Italy and became one of the first foreign correspondents. In Italy she secretly married an Italian nobleman (her family disapproved) and had a child. Tragically, the three drowned just off Long Island in a storm on the voyage back to New York in 1850.
Detail: Dorothea Dix–the asylum’s advocate
In 1841, schoolteacher Dorothea Dix taught a Sunday school class at a prison in Massachusetts. She was disturbed to see “lunatics” locked up in unheated cells. She petitioned the state legislature for improvement. As she became dedicated to the cause, she learned that conditions in other states were often even worse. Dix travelled all over Canada and the US championing the cause of an asylum, where the indigent insane would receive treatment and care rather than incarceration. Although we have since seen the evils that can arise in asylums, their creation was motivated by compassion. Many of the social reforms of the Antebellum period were driven by women, as this was an acceptable form of social participation at the time.
Detail: Denmark Vesey–Leader of a doomed slave insurrection
Denmark Vesey was born a slave on St. Thomas. Living in Charleston in 1799, he was able to buy his freedom after winning the lottery. (What Hath God Wrought describes how slavery as an institution varied in urban and rural environments, and in the old south and new south.) He was successful as a carpenter, but nursed a grudge against white society. He planned an insurrection for the summer of 1822, planning to attack the city arsenal, take the masters’ horses, and kill all the whites in Charleston. The plan was detected, and the conspirators were arrests before any rebellion took place. 135 persons were arrested and 35 executed, including Vesey. Much of the conspiracy took place at the Charleston African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) Church. If that name sounds familiar, it’s where Dylan Roof murdered 9 people in the summer of 2015. 200 years later, the congregation still reveres Denmark Vesey as a hero.
Part of life in Albuquerque is the annual balloon fiesta. For up to 9 days (weather allowing), 550 balloons launch at dawn and fill the skies; their adoring viewers fill the town. The fiesta adds a surreal whimsy to the week. More than once, I’ve walked outside to find a balloon 20 feet overhead, people waving as I stand sleepy with my morning tea. Sometimes the balloons have to land creatively, trying to avoid highways and power lines. Last year, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment on a morning during fiesta week. It was beautiful to drive into a field of glowing orbs but it didn’t bestow the greatest confidence in my fellow drivers.
When the conditions are just right, the wind forms a pattern called the “Albuquerque Box”. When The Box is in effect, ground level winds sink down the Rio Grande Valley, flowing south and higher winds flow north. By adjusting altitude (basically the only control for a balloonist), the balloon can circle back to the launching position. The Box was running both days I went this year, and we watched the pilots compete in navigation competitions.
In materials science class, we examined wallpaper patterns for symmetries. Atoms and molecules can pack according to a variety of crystal structures. Mathematics obviously loves patterns too. There are fractal tilings and tessellations. Who doesn’t love Escher? There are probably practical applications to tiling, but more importantly they are great fun that tickles the brain. Recently I took my first stab at pattern making depicting (what else?) water polo.
In 1915, my great aunt Gudrun died of type 1 diabetes at the age of ten or eleven. It was one of those family health tidbits to mention to the doctor and little more. Insulin injections weren’t developed until 1922; before that, the disease was a death sentence.
A few weeks ago, I got to see Gudrun’s postcards. They were passed down through the family, but I had never seen them before.
The oldest postcards go back to 1909 or so, when Gudrun would have been 4 or 5. They’re from her sisters, who worked in big city Minneapolis, or her school mates. Many of them are undated and probably delivered by hand, as they have no stamps or postmarks. Many of the dates on the postmarked cards aren’t legible.The last postcards are postmarked around Christmas 1914. I haven’t been able to find records of when Gudrun died, just that the year was 1915. Many of the postcards ask after Gudrun’s health, even well before she would have been ill. Health comes up in many of the postcards between six and seven year olds. Health was different in that era. One of Gudrun’s sisters would die from pneumonia a few years later as a high schooler. [Correction: the girl who died from pneumonia was my grandfather’s sister. One of Gudrun’s sisters died of an ear infection in the 1930s.] One of her brothers later died from an infected cut.
Postcards seem like they were routinely exchanged between young children. The spelling and handwriting on many of the cards is very young. Mail and trinkets of the greater world were probably a huge thrill in rural Readstown, Wisconsin, a town of 515 in 1910. Gudrun lived on a farm, and probably most of her classmates did too. Because many of the cards are undated, it’s hard to establish a time line. Did her classmates write more to her as she became ill? They sent cards for every holiday. There are birthday cards, Valentine’s cards, Thanksgiving cards, Easter cards, New Years cards, and Halloween cards. Many are un-themed. Sometimes a little friend sent a holiday card at an odd time, apologizing that it was the only card they could find.
We don’t know how long Gudrun was ill before she succumbed. Online resources suggest children lived from a few weeks up to a year. Around the time of Gudrun’s illness, doctors began to advocate a starvation treatment to reduce sugar levels and prolong life. In rural Wisconsin, Gudrun probably didn’t follow such a course of treatment, but maybe the general concept was present. Since ancient times, diabetes had been described for the sugary taste it gave to a victim’s urine, so the connection to sugar was well-known.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Gudrun. We don’t have any of the cards she sent. All of her correspondents and siblings are long dead. I look at her and wonder about her and what her life was like. The postcard designs are an insight into Gudrun’s era as well. Some feature Norwegian; she probably spoke some. The handwriting is exclusively in English. All but two or three feature illustrations rather than photos. Some have metallic foil and embossing. Some have half tone designs. I picked a few of my favorites.
Gudrun died over 70 years before I was born. What a wonderful record of her community and family and friendships this collection of cards is. Her life and death over a hundred years ago feels real through it.
The Missouri History Museum in St. Louis has a new exhibit: #1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis. I grew up in St. Louis and the title sounded ridiculous. #1? Every school in the state of Missouri requires students to learn about Missouri history in 4th grade. We learned about Daniel Boone and the Pony Express and the Dred Scott case. We didn’t learn about protests or sit-ins or bus boycotts. My school district was desegregated with busing in 1983. The events in Ferguson in 2014 don’t exactly suggest a racially-progressive St. Louis.
So how could the History Museum argue that St. Louis was #1 in civil rights?
It’s a quote. For the 1964 bicentennial of St. Louis, Nathan B. Young wrote an article calling St. Louis the #1 city in civil rights. He was the editor of the St. Louis American, a black newspaper. He argued that the civil rights Supreme Court cases that originated from the city and the civil rights actions in the city made St. Louis a prominent city in the movement. The argument is summarized in the 8 minute video from the History Museum below.
The history of civil rights in St. Louis
The exhibit covers all kinds of history I never learned. Missouri was a slave state. But there were protests seeking its admission as a free state in 1819.
St. Louis spawned four major Supreme Court cases.
- 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford, in which Chief Justice Court Roger Taney declared that blacks had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Not exactly a win for decency, but incredibly significant.
- 1938 Gaines v. Canada, in which state universities were required to admit black students if the state lacked a program at a black university. Lloyd Gaines sued for admittance to the University of Missouri Law School. In response, a law school was added to Lincoln University, a black college. Lloyd Gaines went missing in 1939 and has never been found. The Black Culture Center at the University of Missouri is named for Gaines. I am an alum of the University of Missouri and I learned about him for the first time in this exhibit. Other states went so far as sending their students out of state to comply with Gaines v. Canada.
- 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer, which said that courts couldn’t enforce racial covenants.
- 1968 Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., which said that sellers aren’t allowed to have discriminatory racial covenants either. In this case, the seller secretly helped the mixed-race couple buying the home, funding their lawsuit.
I feel cheated that we learned so little of this rich history in school. Fortunately, that deficit is being recognized today.
If you have a chance to visit the exhibit, I highly recommend it. There are several actors playing period activists (ACTivists, get it?), and the woman who played Margaret Bush Wilson was amazing. Stylized portraits of the subjects were commissioned for the exhibit, which was really cool, and necessary in the case of some of the 19th century people with limited period imagery.
The exhibit is really upbeat and focuses on the fight for equality in St. Louis. The negative parts of history–the white flight and the reactionary racism–that’s not a part of this exhibit. It’s part of the story too, but they chose to portray a history that the city can rally around. So little of this history was in my curriculum; I hope that this exhibit and the work supporting it improves that deficit.