Book Review: The Romance of Tea by William H. Ukers (Annotated by James Norwood Pratt)
James Norwood Pratt is one of my all-time favorite tea people. Seriously…I could listen to him read the phone book. When I heard that he was working on a new book, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be ordering it. I was even more excited when I saw that it was actually a newly annotated and expanded of a 1936 book by William H. Ukers. He is perhaps best known for writing All About Tea, an enormous two-volume text that many consider the first real compendium of tea information. Print copies of this book are outrageously expensive but I managed to slog through a PDF of it on my Kindle a few years ago.
It turns out that The Romance of Tea is a condensed version of the research Ukers conducted, written to interest his wife and dedicated to her. I found myself tearing up a bit when I saw that Norwood had dedicated his portion of the book to the memory of his friends John Harney and Devan Shah. When reading an older book like this, it important to consider the perspective of the author and the time period it was written in. Ukers has a decidedly Anglo-centric point of view and was never actually able to visit China (although he did visit Japan, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and many other places).
The book is separated into eight sections ranging from the genesis of tea to a listing of paintings and songs. Ukers goes into exhaustive detail, giving dates and names for just about every tea history topic that you could think of. The spread of tea across the globe and its effect on politics and international trade is a truly fascinating story. Some terminology has changed, fermentation vs oxidation is the main one that comes to mind, but most of the information provided is still very much relevant. The illustrations, prints, and photographs peppered throughout the book are particularly helpful. James Norwood Pratt’s notes at the end of each chapter are enormously helpful, providing the reader with context and updated information where it is appropriate.
My favorite quote of the book might be:
I think I will keep that line at the ready to send to all of the companies who try to send me their teas based on health benefits alone. 🙂
Norwood also added a timeline of tea history at the end of the book that I think will be most useful. It is a detailed list of events occurring from 4100 BCE right up to the 21st century. At just a hair over 200 pages, it is a fairly quick read that is still jam-packed with information. This is a book I will definitely be referring to again and again when I need historical information. I would definitely recommend The Romance of Tea as an addition to any tea lover’s library.
I couldn’t possibly end a review of this book without sharing a picture of the author and I. This was taken by his lovely wife, Valerie, at World Tea Expo in 2016.
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