As I sip my morning tea on this last Saturday before Christmas, I am listening to Andy Williams sing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” My newspapers, however, are filled with reports and analysis of President Bush’s $17 billion bailout of Detroit, Madoff’s alleged $50 billion affair, U.S. unemployment edging closer still to the dreaded 9% level, and the cautioned expectation that the Obama administration will right all the wrongs. I turn to the editorial pages and find write-ups on how difficult it is to predict what 2009 has in store when virtually no relevant history exists to guide the editor’s thinking. As the thought strikes me that “reading the tea leaves” is obviously not the editor’s strong suit, I instinctively glance at my tea cup and realize that there are no tea leaves for me to read – the strainer I used to restrict their journey from the teapot to my teacup has done a fine job.
And then, I remembered the December 16 business meeting at the Biltmore Hotel where I had ordered hot tea and received a tiny pot of lukewarm water and a large, heavy wooden box that contained over 20 different teas in their tiny bags wrapped in large colorful plastic bags. How very different the Darjeeling tea (from the teabag) at the Biltmore had been in comparison with my 2004 Afternoon Tea at the Ritz Hotel in London where the Darjeeling tea had been brewed at the table using loose tea leaves! Wanting to find out if the Ritz was keeping up the tradition, I pulled out my iPhone and sent an email, much to my wife’s annoyance at the disruption to our hour-long weekend morning tea ritual together. Twenty minutes later, I received a reply from Amy Michel of the Ritz Hotel that read “With regard to your enquiry, the Traditional Afternoon Tea is brewed at the table from ‘loose tea leaves’ only.” I smile and I wonder how many other high-profile establishments still brew tea from loose tea leaves in the United Kingdom or, for that matter, anywhere in the western world.
The tea bag is, of course, the reason why the art and science of Tasseography (tea leaf reading) has died in the West. The precursor of today’s ubiquitous tea bag was created over 100 years ago, as publicized in Macy’s Winter 2005 Big Red Book, by the store’s coffee buyer, a Mr. Thomas Sullivan, who used tiny silk sachets to send samples of tea leaves instead of loose tea wrapped in paper. This act nearly cost Mr. Sullivan his Macy’s job when recipients of the silk bags made very public and loud protests about the dark liquid, with a distinctive and unappetizing aroma, that was produced when the silk bag was immersed in boiling water. The protests came to an end when the recipients realized that they were supposed to cut the beautiful silk sachet and empty only its contents into a teapot. And, in another of life’s little ironies, Mr. William Hermanson of Technical Papers Corporation, got named the inventor of the paper teabag we use today, after he patented it in 1930 while working in Boston.
While Tasseography might not have assisted the editors of my newspaper to make predictions on what 2009 would bring, I do wonder if we humans are any good at predicting the future. I think this is precisely why the Oracle, Nostradamus, and their ilk kept predictions more than a bit vague. To me, it is just a matter of whether you believe that major forces shape the future or whether individual persons can make a huge difference. Voting in favor of the latter, I plan to continue, with newfound vigor, my participation in my community. I believe we together will make a wonder-filled and joyous 2009 for each of us, even while the financial collapse of 2008 unfolds around us, if we just make the time to share a pot of hot tea made at the table with loose tea leaves.