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STEEPED IN TEA:
NEW YORK BEFORE THE MANHATTAN

Tea in the City: New York, by Elizabeth Knight

Manhattan might have a cocktail named after it, but did you know that the city's first fashionable beverage was tea? Americans drank tea before the British, and New Yorkers drank it first. Dutch mariners introduced the "excellent China drink" to Amsterdam in 1606, and some historians say that peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant brought tea with him in 1647 when he was appointed governor of Manhattan. Seventeenth-century sippers enjoyed both Japanese green and Chinese black teas Orange-Pekoe, named for the Dutch Royal House of Orange, remains well known.

Dutch 'thee' became English 'tee' or 'tea' when New Amsterdam was forced to surrender to the British in 1664. The colony was re-christened New York to honor James, Duke of York, brother of King Charles II Queens, New York's largest borough, was named for Catherine of Braganza, Charles' Portuguese bride, who was England's first tea-drinking queen.

Wealthy New Yorkers - Dutch and British - drank tea twice a day. Tea parties with Dutch 'koeckjes' (cookies) were a popular form of entertainment. New York's most famous tea party occurred on April 22, 1774, when rebellious colonials tossed eighteen chests of that "pernicious British herb" into New York harbor to protest the tax on tea.

Although tea drinking was considered unpatriotic during the Revolutionary War years. General George Washington must have enjoyed it while headquartered at the Morris-Jumel mansion during the Battle of Harlem Heights. His household inventory recorded several sets of Chinese and Wedgwood teawares. When a stash of tea was discovered hidden in some woods, Washington personally wrote orders for its distribution to his Colonial Army officers.

 

Washington Irving described a tea table in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: "Such heaped-up platters of cake of various and almost indescribable kinds, known only to experienced Dutch housewives ... all mingled higgledly-piggledy, with the mother tea-pot sending up its clouds of vapor from the midst."

New York City became the capital of the new nation in 1784. Washington, inaugurated at the old City Hall, was said to breakfast daily on three cups of tea. Tea water pumps, erected over freshwater springs, provided the President and citizens with potable water for a penny or two a pail.

Eighteenth-century New York boasted two hundred tea establishments. Gardens, named Ranelagh and Vauxhall after their London counterparts, sprang up around the Lower East Side and the Bowery. Here, city sophisticates could stroll through leafy glades, flirt, or sit to sip tea.

Ships sped between New York Harbor and Asia clipping the time it took to satisfy America's thirst for tea, porcelain, and silk. In 1808, John Jacob Astor's ship. The Beaver, sailed for Canton loaded with $45,000 worth of fur and other goods. She returned with $200,000  worth of Chinese tea, helping the once-penniless German immigrant become America's first multimillionaire.

The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company opened on Vesey Street in 1859 and grew into the world's largest chain store, the ancestor of today's A&P grocery. By 1860, $8.3 million worth of imported tea was handled by New  York merchants.

Today, the tradition of afternoon tea continues to gather steam.  Locals like to celebrate a birthday, bridal shower, or other special event with a convivial tea party. Jet-lagged travelers find afternoon tea a soothing late lunch or early dinner. Tea makes a light yet satisfying pre-theatre or post-concert meal. Afternoon  teas are edging out cocktail parties as busy executives discover they can conduct business with cups that cheer but don't inebriate. Parched shoppers and footsore tourists revive drooping spirits with time-out over tea.

Although an English-style afternoon tea is among the oldest of New York's tea traditions, it is only one way  to enjoy a fragrant cup. Today, in the East Village neighborhood once home  to Peter Stuyvesant's farm, it is possible to sip Japanese matcha, Moroccan mint, Tibetan bocha, and Taiwanese bubble tea. Leave your passport at home; New York is the world in a tea cup!
 

 

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