A Time for Tea

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Each of Jason Goodwin’s grandmothers had a tea caddy acquired while her husband was representing the British Empire in the Far East during the early part of this century. One was sandalwood and held Assam and Darjeeling; the other was black lacquer and held Keemun and Lapsang Souchong. Thus inspired, Goodwin sets out from London to discover what he can about tea.

Carrying a few letters of introduction and four books about tea, Goodwin arrives in Hong Kong and begins his quest with the pursuit of an elusive “Professor Tea,” whose name kept cropping up at dinner parties. He travels through China and India, one contact leading to the next, each contact an intriguing soul. Among his many guides are an oil worker in Canton, a French teacher in Amoy, a retired schoolmaster in Fuzhou, a restaurateur in Wuyi, a tea company executive in Calcutta, and a tea planter in Darjeeling. Though he is a historian by training, Goodwin’s trop is not that of a university professor ushered from one quiet archive to the next; it’s closer to that of a backpacker, though a backpacker with credentials and a purpose.

Permeating Goodwin’s travelogue is the history of tea, from its legendary beginnings in ancient China, to the romance of the tea trade on the high seas in the eighteenth century, to the influence of the British on the tea industry in modern India. He also describes the world of tea today: how it is grown, processed, classified, marketed, and drunk. Goodwin’s unstructured style allows glimpses into other fascinating worlds as well, such as the polite impenetrability of the Chinese bureaucracy and the life-styles of leftover British imperialists in India.

A TIME FOR TEA is written in a chatty style that seems disjointed at first, but this seeming flaw ultimately takes on a certain charm, since it leaves Goodwin’s wry sense of observation unrestrained. The reader looks forward to his offhand commentary, especially his descriptions of people. Of a barfly in Amoy he notes, “Arnold was plump and looked boiled.” A lengthy description of a tea taster’s nose culminates with, “It flared over the volcano, burrowed in and re-emerged with a scattering of wet tea-leaves adhering to its tip, which trembled slightly over the verdict.” The book is thoroughly engaging.