Review: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, Sarah Rose

Review: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, Sarah RoseFor All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose
Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 0143118749
on February 22, 2011
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 259
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

"If ever there was a book to read in the company of a nice cuppa, this is it." -The Washington Post

In the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed, Sarah Rose recounts the fascinating, unlikely circumstances surrounding a turning point in economic history. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to British plantations in India. Fortune's danger-filled odyssey, magnificently recounted here, reads like adventure fiction, revealing a long-forgotten chapter of the past and the wondrous origins of a seemingly ordinary beverage.

More than a history of the British East India Company’s dominance in the tea trade, this book is really about how one man, Robert Fortune, managed to steal tea plants, seeds, secrets, and expert growers and transplant all of them to India so that Britain could wriggle out of trading with China for tea. In order to accomplish this feat, Robert Fortune committed what Rose describes as “the greatest theft of protected trade secrets the world has ever known.”

It’s an interesting story, and at the heart of it is British racism—their feelings of superiority to the Chinese from whom they stole the tea and the Indians they subjugated to help grow it in India are certainly familiar to anyone with a passing understanding of British colonial history. This act of espionage contributed in many ways, great and small, to the world around us today, and in some degree, we may owe everything from Indian independence to Chinese communism in part to Robert Fortune’s theft of Chinese tea.

Among several interesting things I learned:

  • The British East India Company basically “ruled” India until the Indian Rebellion of 1857. If I were a student in British schools, I might have learned this information in school, but since I went to American schools, I suppose it was not deemed important. Truthfully, most of the “world history” I learned was ancient history, and I learned very little about the last few hundred years in those courses. It blows my mind that a company, even one as large as the British East India Company, ruled a country.
  • In large part, the insensitivity of the British East India Company in using beef tallow and pork fat as a lubricant in the Enfield P-53 rifle, offending both Hindu and Muslim Indians, was one of the leading causes of the Indian Rebellion.
  • Wardian Cases were small “greenhouses” Robert Fortune used to transport tea plants. They actually worked pretty well, and the cases, along with Fortune’s idea to plant a few of the seeds rather than ship them unplanted, allowed them to germinate successfully.
  • There are some teas, like Da Hong Pao, that are more valuable than gold in terms of cost per ounce. Da Hong Pao costs thousands of dollars per ounce.

Rose mentions in her “Notes” that because “this is a work of popular history, not a scholarly undertaking, I have avoided the use of footnotes and tried to steer clear of mentioning sources in the body of the text.” I think this was a mistake on her part, and it’s one of the major reasons the book doesn’t earn more than four stars, for though it was entertaining, nonfiction should provide this sort of information to its readers, even popular nonfiction. And much popular nonfiction does. On the other hand, it’s the kind of popular fiction I like to read: narrow in its focus on one person’s impact on the history of the tea trade.

four-stars

Food Nonfiction

I love reading about food. It is interesting to learn how certain food items are entwined with history and impacted world events as well as how they became so important to culture as well as our diet. We are what we eat, right? Here is a collection of books about food that I’ve put on my tbr pile:

Salt: A World HistoryOne of my friends has described this book as one of the best she’s ever read. [amazon asin=0142001619&text=Salt: A World History] by Mark Kurlansky is a story about the history and importance of salt. From Goodreads:

Kurlansky “turns his attention to a common household item with a long and intriguing history: salt. The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions.  Populated by colorful characters and filled with an unending series of fascinating details, Kurlansky’s kaleidoscopic history is a supremely entertaining, multi-layered masterpiece.”

The True History of Chocolate (Second Edition)I actually have [amazon asin=0500286965&text=The True History of Chocolate] by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe on my shelf right now. I looove chocolate. Who doesn’t? Goodreads says,

This delightful and best-selling tale of one of the world’s favorite foods draws upon botany, archaeology, and culinary history to present a complete and accurate history of chocolate. The story begins some 3,000 years ago in the jungles of Mexico and Central America with the chocolate tree, Theobroma Cacao, and the complex processes necessary to transform its bitter seeds into what is now known as chocolate. This was centuries before chocolate was consumed in generally unsweetened liquid form and used as currency by the Maya, and the Aztecs after them. The Spanish conquest of Central America introduced chocolate to Europe, where it first became the drink of kings and aristocrats and then was popularized in coffeehouses. Industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made chocolate a food for the masses, and now, in our own time, it has become once again a luxury item. The second edition draws on recent research and genetic analysis to update the information on the origins of the chocolate tree and early use by the Maya and others, and there is a new section on the medical and nutritional benefits of chocolate.

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History[amazon asin=0143118749&text=For All the Tea in China] by Sarah Rose is currently on my Kindle. I love tea. I love teapots. I love everything about a traditional British tea. This book, however, makes the story of tea sound like an adventure. Goodreads describes the book:

Robert Fortune was a Scottish gardener, botanist, plant hunter—and industrial spy. In 1848, the East India Company engaged him to make a clandestine trip into the interior of China—territory forbidden to foreigners—to steal the closely guarded secrets of tea. For centuries, China had been the world’s sole tea manufacturer. Britain purchased this fuel for its Empire by trading opium to the Chinese—a poisonous relationship Britain fought two destructive wars to sustain. The East India Company had profited lavishly as the middleman, but now it was sinking, having lost its monopoly to trade tea. Its salvation, it thought, was to establish its own plantations in the Himalayas of British India. There were just two problems: India had no tea plants worth growing, and the company wouldn’t have known what to do with them if it had. Hence Robert Fortune’s daring trip. The Chinese interior was off-limits and virtually unknown to the West, but that’s where the finest tea was grown—the richest oolongs, soochongs and pekoes. And the Emperor aimed to keep it that way.

Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive OilI was doing some research on olive oil the other day, and I came across [amazon asin=0393070212&text=Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil] by Tom Mueller, and I have to admit I was intrigued. A whole book in olive oil? Apparently so:

For millennia, fresh olive oil has been one of life’s necessities—not just as food but also as medicine, a beauty aid, and a vital element of religious ritual. Today’s researchers are continuing to confirm the remarkable, life-giving properties of true extra-virgin, and “extra-virgin Italian” has become the highest standard of quality.

But what if this symbol of purity has become deeply corrupt? Starting with an explosive article in The New Yorker, Tom Mueller has become the world’s expert on olive oil and olive oil fraud-a story of globalization, deception, and crime in the food industry from ancient times to the present, and a powerful indictment of today’s lax protections against fake and even toxic food products in the United States. A rich and deliciously readable narrative, Extra Virginity is also an inspiring account of the artisanal producers, chemical analysts, chefs, and food activists who are defending the extraordinary oils that truly deserve the name “extra-virgin.”

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement [amazon asin=0061288519&text=97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement] by Jane Ziegelman has been on my list for a long time. Goodreads says,

This delicious saga of how immigrant food became American food follows European immigrants on a remarkable journey from the Ellis Island dining hall to tiny tenement kitchens, from Lower East Side pushcart markets and delicatessens out into the wider world of American cuisine.

Although reviewers have mentioned the book isn’t really about the immigrant families so much as it is about the kinds of food immigrants brought to America and that the single tenement was more an organization device than anything else, I still really want to read it. Just reading the description from Publisher’s Weekly makes me hungry:

Ziegelman puts a historical spin to the notion that you are what you eat by looking at five immigrant families from what she calls the “elemental perspective of the foods they ate.” They are German, Italian, Irish, and Jewish (both Orthodox and Reform) from Russia and Germany—they are new Americans, and each family, sometime between 1863 and 1935, lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Each represents the predicaments faced in adapting the food traditions it knew to the country it adopted. From census data, newspaper accounts, sociological studies, and cookbooks of the time, Ziegelman vividly renders a proud, diverse community learning to be American. She describes the funk of fermenting sauerkraut, the bounty of a pushcart market, the culinary versatility of a potato, as well as such treats as hamburger, spaghetti, and lager beer. Beyond the foodstuffs and recipes of the time, however, are the mores, histories, and identities that food evokes. Through food, the author records the immigrants’ struggle to reinterpret themselves in an American context and their reciprocal impact on American culture at large.

Food is one of those things that shapes our culture in so many ways. We also derive so much of who we are from the food we eat. I was listening to an Italian-American colleague at work the other day telling a co-worker he never had macaroni and cheese as a child because it was “boxed pasta,” and his mother wouldn’t have it in the house. I don’t think I ever had pasta that wasn’t from a box unless it was at a restaurant. I know folks who swear by homemade pasta and spend the time to make it, but would I know the difference? I don’t know what I’m missing. Chances are pretty good, however, that my colleague doesn’t know good Southern fried chicken.

So, do you have any good books about food? Please share.

Sunday Salon: Easter 2012

I hope everyone is having a good Easter. We have a ham in the oven. The kids received books in their Easter baskets. Dylan got [amazon_link id=”0394823370″ target=”_blank” ]The Lorax[/amazon_link], and Maggie got [amazon_link id=”0439023521″ target=”_blank” ]The Hunger Games[/amazon_link] (that is probably kind of weird, but she has been wanting to read it). I received a gift surprise of the entire [amazon_link id=”0545162076″ target=”_blank” ]Harry Potter series[/amazon_link] in e-book format, and I decided that since I wanted to reread them anyway this year, might as well start, particularly as I was not really getting into [amazon_link id=”006197806X” target=”_blank” ]Pandemonium[/amazon_link]. I also picked up [amazon_link id=”0143118749″ target=”_blank” ]For All the Tea in China[/amazon_link], which looks like a great read.

If you’ve read and finished Pandemonium, tell me: should I keep reading it? The more I think about it’s prequel, [amazon_link id=”B00526ZKYS” target=”_blank” ]Delirium[/amazon_link], the less I like it. I’m not sure I want to invest any more in the trilogy if I am not going to like it. I think I must be missing something because plenty of folks seem to love these books. Of course, plenty of people seem to be enjoying [amazon_link id=”0345803485″ target=”_blank” ]Fifty Shades of Grey[/amazon_link], and I know enough about myself to know I’d hate that series, so it’s not like I swim with the crowd as a matter of course.

Speaking of rereading, The Guardian has a nice piece about what authors themselves like to reread.

So what are you reading this fine Easter Sunday?

The Sunday Salon

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Books I Hope Santa Brings

Top Ten Tuesday

  1. [amazon_link id=”1451648537″ target=”_blank” ]Steve Jobs[/amazon_link] by Walter Isaacson
  2. [amazon_link id=”0062024027″ target=”_blank” ]Divergent[/amazon_link] by Veronica Roth
  3. [amazon_link id=”0674049748″ target=”_blank” ]Persuasion: An Annotated Edition[/amazon_link] by Jane Austen, ed. by Robert Morrison
  4. [amazon_link id=”193290736X” target=”_blank” ]The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers[/amazon_link] by Christopher E. Vogler
  5. [amazon_link id=”0399536450″ target=”_blank” ]Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women[/amazon_link] by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
  6. [amazon_link id=”006176910X” target=”_blank” ]A Thousand Times More Fair: What Shakespeare’s Plays Teach Us About Justice[/amazon_link] by Kenji Yoshino
  7. [amazon_link id=”1596914254″ target=”_blank” ]Paris: The Secret History[/amazon_link] by Andrew Hussey
  8. [amazon_link id=”0143118749″ target=”_blank” ]For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History[/amazon_link] by Sarah Rose
  9. [amazon_link id=”0670022691″ target=”_blank” ]Rules of Civility[/amazon_link] by Amor Towles
  10. [amazon_link id=”0500286965″ target=”_blank” ]The True History of Chocolate[/amazon_link] by Michael D. Coe