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Wake up and Smell the Tea

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In several scenes in Muriel Barbery's excellent novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Renee, a Parisian concierge, and her housekeeper friend Manuela meet for tea. "I make coffee that we shall not drink," writes Renee, the narrator, "but its wafting odor delights us both, and in silence we sip a cup of green tea as we nibble on our tuiles."

A dualism between tea and coffee runs throughout the book, and coffee does not come out favorably. As another character, the precocious twelve-year-old Paloma, notes, coffee is "a nasty person's drink," corresponding to "adult power struggles and their sad aggressiveness," whereas tea is something "elegant and enchanting" which the novel's sensitive and likeable protagonists drink often.

Given that a vast majority of Westerners are coffee drinkers--85% is one figure I have heard--I suspect Barbery intended to amuse rather than offend us with this characterization. I, for one, as a keen coffee drinker who also likes tea, did not take it amiss. But part of me thinks there is actually some truth in this idea.

The representative coffee drinker in the novel is Paloma's father, a remote character who reads several newspapers each morning and works as a high-level government minister. This correlation between coffee and the world of power and politics seems apt to me. Doesn't our image of every seat of power--every board room, cabinet, trading floor, military headquarters, and summit meeting--seem to involve the constant filling and re-filling of coffee cups?

Our current, tea-drinking President, however, constitutes an interesting exception. Obama, who, as is well-known, enjoys the Honest Tea brand of bottled tea, is of a piece with the tea drinkers in Barbery's book--calm, elegant, reflective, careful with his words--everything, in short, that his coffee-drinking predecessor was not. There is, of course, a chicken-and-egg aspect to all this: are mellow types attracted to tea, or does tea-drinking promote mellowness?

From my own experience, I have to think the latter is true, that you are what you drink. On the occasions when I have managed to skip coffee for a week or two and drink tea instead, I have invariably felt calmer. Most Western doctors, including my own, seem to think coffee and tea have the same effect, but my own experience contradicts this totally. For me, there is something agitating, often appealingly so, but still agitating, in the nature of coffee, that is absent in tea.

Brillat-Savarin, the food writer, insisted a strong, healthy man could drink two liters of wine a day without adverse consequences, but that the equivalent amount of coffee would prove eventually lethal. These days our attitudes and our tolerances are quite different. Two liters of wine a day would put you on the far margins of society, but two liters of coffee is only, what, two ventis and a grande? Sadly, Brillat-Savarin did not leave us his thoughts on tea, but I have to think he would have put it in a milder category than coffee.

It is interesting to consider, as some books have done, what effect coffee drinking has had on the world. In the standard formulation, coffee is the beverage of the Enlightenment, an agent for intellectual sparkle and brilliance, viz. Voltaire of forty-cups-a-day fame (let's hope they were demitasses). Beethoven, admittedly more of a post-Enlightenment figure, was similarly devoted to his morning coffee, and I have sometimes felt you could hear this in his music. The strain, the human willfulness of it, seem a kind of sonic reflection of caffeine intake, in complete contrast to the pastoral, gentle qualities of a Schubert, who I feel certain was an Earl Grey man.

Here is what I wonder: what might happen if the entire world tried switching from coffee to tea for, say, a week? Would the halls of power resound with cheerfulness and consensus? Or would the stock market crash? The change of tone produced by a single tea-drinking President is remarkable enough; wouldn't it be interesting to see this effect multiplied on a spectacular scale? Note, I don't suggest making the switch for a day as one can expect the first several days to be spent in withdrawal. But I think a week or at most two would suffice for the experiment.

Until then, perhaps someone should check if Kim Jong-Il is, as I fear, a tea drinker. If he is, this theory may not hold water.

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