Flag of the Qing Dynasty
Chinese solar eclipse mythology stretches over thousands of years. The fun myths and real life stories of the rise and fall of empires around solar eclipses give an unique view into this ancient culture. So grab a cup of your favorite tea and join us in a little historic sun gazing.
One of the oldest Chinese solar eclipse myths is around the hungry dragon. A solar eclipse is a dragon eating the sun. To stop it from consuming the entire sun, a lot of noise has to be made. Originally, pots and pans where beaten to make noise to scare away the dragon. The noise making expanded to include drums, firecrackers and even the firing of cannons on naval vessels. This belief in the hungry dragons led to one of the first words for eclipse to be the Chinese word shi, which means to eat.
What this fun story hides is the obsession with the sky that heavily influenced Chinese culture. It was believed, and is still reference in modern day culture, that the heavens dictate the power of the leader. So understanding the heavens and its signs was a full time job for several members of the imperial court and a serious hobby for many of the commoners.
Chinese Astronomy and Solar Eclipses
Solar eclipses are seen as bad omens for Chinese Emperors, so astronomers where tasked with predicting them and ensuring that the Emperor was aware. If caught off guard, the Emperor was seen as out of favor with the heavens and weak. This opened up the possibility of having to pass the thrown to another family member or an opponent. The first detailed documentation of an eclipse was more of a documentation of the beheading of 2 of Emperor Kang’s astronomers for failing to predict the eclipse in 2134 B.C.E. (To put this in perspective, humans really didn’t have the mathematical equations or equipment to nail down the day and time of eclipses until the 1800s C.E.. So the Chinese advisers used observation of the moon and star placement to predict both solar and lunar equations usually within a few days of the actual occurrence.)
So why so much detail? The moon phases were used to build the original calendars and predict the change of seasons, which helped with planting and harvesting of foods. Getting the planting and harvest wrong, meant people would starve. It was the emperor’s job to tell people when to plant and harvest, so having help in predicting and documenting the sky was critical to the emperor’s success.
The Chinese obsession with the sky lead to a vast amount of documentation of the stars, sun and moon back into 2100s B.C.E. These were so detailed that they were used by the NASA Jet propulsion lab to help calculate the historic rotation of the planet.
So as we enjoy the eclipse on Monday, we will toast it with a cup of Jasmine Dragon Tears, as the poor dragon fails to eat the sun.
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Clotted Cream, Jam, and Cream Tea
Cream tea refers to practice of having tea with scones and clotted cream. A truly British practice coming out of the afternoon teas, or high teas, made popular by the Duchess of Bedford in the early 1800’s. The practice of afternoon tea became extremely popular by the mid-1800’s, even spreading to the United States.
What is Cream Tea
Afternoon tea became popular at the same time that the railroad expanded in London. Londoners would get on the train and spend the weekend along the southern coast of England. It was in the West Country of England (actually the southwest part of England along the British Channel), which encompasses Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset, that brought the term of cream tea into the British lexicon. The local restaurants and pubs, in catering to the weekend tourists turned afternoon tea into cream tea.
This area of England was and still is well known for their lamb, beef and cheese production. Their use of local ingredients for the food at the afternoon teas created huge demand, especially for the clotted cream, which is best described as whipped cream meets butter. Keeping in mind that refrigeration had not come along yet, clotted cream would have been a true treat. It does not keep for more than a few days, even in modern refrigeration. So if you can imagine having something like frosting, without the sugar, on top of your scone in a time where nothing like that existed you can understand why it came to be called cream tea. And they always added jam to give it sweetness. Welcome to where the 3-4 pm sugar and caffeine fix came from in European and American culture!
Modern Cream Tea
Cream tea is still alive and well in the West Country of England. There are even debates on whose clotted cream is better, Devon or Cornwall. So if you should ever find yourself on the southern coast of England, stop into the tea shops and enjoy the original clotted cream. If you want to make your own, here is a recipe that doesn’t require the use of the stove top.
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Popular throughout the American south, Sweet Tea can be a great way to beat the summer heat. Photo by liz west (Flickr) – CC BY 2.0 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/641462022/
With iced tea season on hand, it is time to look at another American twist to tea, the southern afternoon tea. If you haven’t guessed already, the main beverage of the southern afternoon tea is iced tea. So let’s take a look at its origins and then what to serve to make your southern afternoon tea truly American.
Southern Afternoon Tea – History
Afternoon teas in the US mimic British teas during the 1700’s. However, as the ice box and refrigeration developed in the US, so did iced tea. Keep in mind, a high temperature in London is the upper 60’s for the summer. In most of the southern US it is a good 20 degrees warmer, so ice became very popular very quickly in our country. Sweet iced tea, with black tea as the base, first appeared in the 1870’s. Before that, it was green tea that served as the base to iced tea. In the wealthy plantations the tea was served over ice with sugar and a slice of lemon. Periodically herbs like mint or basil were added as garnish.
Southern Afternoon Tea – What to Serve
A southern tea needs American food, luckily there is no shortage of historic recipes to draw from when crafting your menu. Much like the British, the southern tea includes both sweet and savory items. The big difference is the use of ingredients and foods that reflect what was available in the early to mid-1800’s in the United States. Of course you can update this with your favorite family recipes.
- Southern Tea Cake – This soft cake like cookie is the simple combination of sugar, flour, eggs, milk, butter,and pearlash (an early form of leavening agent, like yeast). Today’s version includes vanilla, baking powder and salt. These versatile cakes can be eaten plain or used much like the British scone.
- Apple Tansey – This calls for a true cast iron skillet to get right. First published in 1742 in Williamsburg, VA, this treat is highlighted in the Complete Housewife, which was originally published in England but was reworked by William Parks for American tastes. This recipe calls for Pipin Apples (Granny Smith seem to be a favored alternative), butter, eggs, cream, sugar and nutmeg. The goal is to fry the apples in butter and then add the eggs and cream and have it brown on one side and then flip (or cook under a broiler) to brown the other. Think of it like a sweet apple frittata.
Ambrosia Salad – Photo by Flickr User Steven Depolo (CC BY 2.0)
Ambrosia Salad – This fruit salad appeared in the 1860’s as the railroad connected the southern citrus fields with the northern Eastern cities. As California opened up, coconut was commonly delivered into San Francisco and made its way east for those who could afford it. Ambrosia salad was originally a layered salad of shredded coconut, sugar and citrus. It has since had pecans and marshmallows added to it.
- Biscuits with Ham – Pigs were a big staple in all early American homes. They provided both protein and fat for cooking other foods that could be cured with salt for long term storage.
So the next time you are thinking about afternoon tea, try the American version!
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Raku Pottery – Photo by Flickr User Tony Alter – CC BY 2.0
Raku pottery finds its roots back to the later part of the Ming Dynasty in China (1500’s CE), but was fully developed by the Raku family in Japan. This pottery technique has spread the world over and has taken its own form in the United States and Europe. However, the fundamentals are still similar and they all go back to the influence of Sen Rikyu, the buddiest monk who created the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Raku Pottery – Early History
Sen Rikyu heavily influenced the first Raku potter, Chojiro. Chojiro’s father was originally from China. He brought with him to Japan the Chinese pottery method of Sancai. This method uses the three colors of off-white, brown, and green to decorate pottery. Chojiro was taught this method and used it in his own works. He was commissioned by the Buddiest monks to make the clay tiles for a temple in Kyoto. It is there that Sen Rikyu and Chojiro met and together brought about what is now called Raku pottery.
Sen Rikyu commissioned Chojiro to make tea bowls that reflected the philosophy of wabi-sabi. This philosophy was focused on the beauty in simple items. Rikyu wanted the tea bowls to be a single color and simple form that reflected simplicity. Chojiro worked in red and black glaze. The red was a reflection of the original color of the clay, while black was a humble color. These bowls became the center piece of the Japanese Tea Ceremony and were shared widely by Sen Rikyu. Both Sen Rikyu and Chojiro worked for a leading warrior statemen, Toyotomo Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi so loved the tea bowls that he presented Chojiro with a golden seal containing the Chinese symbol for Raku. Chojiro took that as his surname and it has been past down through the family ever sense.
Raku Pottery – Current Times
Fifteen generations later, the Raku family still practices ceramics in Japan. Their home, rebuilt in the late 1800’s, is a museum that houses a collection of the older pieces of Raku ceramics. The current generation is active in preserving the Japanese Tea Ceremony in Japan as well as more modern art and interior design.
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Tea in poetry is a perfect pairing of a beverage that requires patience and observation to enjoy with a means to express that practice to the rest of the world. As soon as tea entered the scene in China it was quickly added to the poetry. This probably has more to do with the fact that it was the scholars and monks, who could read and write, that discovered and promoted tea consumption to the Chinese aristocracy. Lu Yu, who is credited with documenting in writing the process of making tea in the Classic of Tea, studied in a monastery and authored other books including some poetry. Below are two of our favorite tea poems from China.
A Winter Night
One winter night
A friend dropped in.
We drank not wine but tea.
The kettle hissed,
The charcoal glowed,
A bright moon shone outside.
The moon itself
Was nothing special –
But,ah, the plum-tree blossom!
Tu Hsiao-Shan, Sung Dynasty (960-1279 CE)
The Way of Tea
A friend from Yueh presented me
With tender leaves of Yen-Hsi tea,
For which I chose a kettle
Of ivory-mounted gold,
A mixing-bowl of snow-white earth.
With its clear bright froth and fragrance,
It was like the nectar of Immortals.
The first bowl washed the cobwebs from my mind-
The whole world seemed to sparkle.
A second cleansed my spirit
Like purifying showers of rain.
A third and I was one with the Immortals-
What need now for austerities
To purge our human sorrows?
Worldly people, by going in for wine,
Sadly deceive themselves.
For now I know the Way of Tea is real.
Chiao-Jen, T’ang Dynasty (618-906 CE) and friend of Lu Yu
There are many more poems around tea, both modern and ancient, please share your favorites in the comments section. If you fancy yourself a poet, share your own as well!
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