; Cwyn's Death By Tea: A Reality Check ;

Saturday, September 27, 2014

A Reality Check

Wisconsin rhythms are in my blood. In the spring, I know when sap starts to bleed from maple trees. And when the smelt fish run in huge schools into the inland rivers from Lake Superior where we caught them in huge nets in middle of the night, frying them in beer batter at dawn. Then too I know the best time to search for concretions in Lake Superior, when the lake melts completely from ice and we can go search out rocks which are perfect round balls, formed and smoothed from water dripping on sandstone cliffs. All this I know without needing to see because the weather conditions are just right. Now in September, I know when the wild rice is ready.
Wild rice grows well over your head, photo Wisconsin DNR

Not a true rice, native wild rice is actually a cereal grass. It looks like rice, but cooks up with a taste somewhat similar to Russian kashi, or buckwheat groats. Wild rice grows in quiet flat waters of northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada, and the rice stems are very tall. Wild rice was once a staple of the native tribes of the Chippewa (Ojibwe) and Menominee. But nowadays this notion is a bit more on the mythical side.
Real native wild rice. photo classicprovisions.com
Native tribal chiefs today still determine the time of rice harvesting for the state of Wisconsin, and tribes have the first harvests rice. Many Americans like to cook wild rice on Thanksgiving Day, because wild rice cooks up nicely in the belly of a turkey. But few buy the real stuff. Plantation-grown wild rice is what most Americans recognize, and plantation costs much less. Most Natives too would rather buy potatoes or nearly any other rice at the grocery store for less than a dollar a pound than do the work of gathering wild rice.
Plantation wild rice, photo by allcreatures.org
Wild rice is time-consuming to process. Once harvested, the rice needs to be dried in the sun and then lightly pan roasted. After that, one must don a pair of moccasins and stomp the rice to loosen the hulls. Then the rice needs to be tossed on a windy day to remove the chaff and allow the breeze to carry them off. With all this work involved, buying rice from India or China or even California for less than a dollar a pound becomes more appealing. Who has the time to process wild rice anymore? Of course people still do it. But one can also buy plantation wild rice at the grocery store for $5 a pound. I can buy the real stuff here, but it costs more like $15 a pound. Compare that to a large bag of Indian subcontinent basmati at 10 lbs for $15 and then guess which rice I'll eat more often.

Only residents of Wisconsin are allowed to harvest wild rice within the state. I am allowed to purchase a rice harvest permit for $8.25 which provides rights for my entire family. Harvest rules are strict. Tribal chiefs determine for the state when the rice is ready, and when non-minorities may harvest. Within wild rice waters, harvesters must use a rowboat or canoe with no motor, paddled only by human muscle power and oars. Rice is harvested with two wood sticks, which must be rounded and no longer than 38 inches. Only the boat hull may be used to catch the rice, which will fall into your boat when tapped with the wood sticks.
White people harvesting wild rice, photo Wisconsin DNR
Only about 10-15% of the total wild rice crop is harvested. The rest falls into the water to re-seed the paddy. Along with other rules that could affect the water table (such as no dams placed nearby), the rice paddies continue to yield rice as they have done for a thousand years or longer.

Y'all know where I'm going with this, right? The parallels with puerh tea leaves are kinda obvious, ethnic minority harvest rights, plantation versus wild, the intrusions of modern life on cultural traditions. I'm feeling the pull of wild rice in the September air, but I didn't even think about parallels with puerh until the other day when I started reading publications by the faculty of the Tea Sciences department at Yunnan Agricultural University. The parallels between wild rice and puerh tea got even more creepy.

Yunnan Agricultural University dedicates much focus to the culture and environs of Yunnan, and that, of course, includes puerh tea. Something of a sister school exists here in our Northland College at, guess where? Northern Wisconsin. A comparison of the majors available at both colleges reads very similarly, with a few minor differences. A bit more on fishery and logging at Northland College, a bit more tea chemistry and goat breeding at Yunnan NAU. Both schools are focused firmly on their responsibility for the native ecology of their respective regions. I cannot bear the thought of what might happen without joint efforts between governments, schools, industry tribes and citizens. No doubt all our citizens are grateful to the parties involved and to these schools who are working hard to preserve our wild terroir for generations to come.

The Journal of Yunnan Agricultural University offers interesting insight into the research directions of puerh tea. The journal has Social Sciences and Natural Sciences editions. Both are searchable online in English and Chinese, and I found 90 records for tea in the Natural Sciences edition and over 100 in the Social Sciences edition, although these searches did bring up irrelevant articles. Most articles about puerh tea in the Natural Sciences edition explore the chemistry of tea, mainly focusing on identifying the health benefits compounds or quality control variables. A few, however, identify the compounds behind aroma in puerh tea, and even a "chestnut" aroma in teas in general produced by the Fuxiang Factory. Those compounds are linalool α-Terpeneol, Geraniol, Nerol, Nerolidol, α-Humulene, Longipinenepoxide, Caryophyllene oxide, Butanoic acid, 4-hexeryl ester, 2-Hexadecen-I-oL, and 3,7,11,15-tetranethyl.

When reading articles about variables and controls in tea cultivation and processing, I can't help but wonder if the tea cake of the future will consist of results of this sort of research. If whether that chestnut aroma isn't attributable so much to my tea experience and palate, but rather to tea genetic engineering, or even compounds added to the maocha to enhance particular flavors. All the talk about palate and experience and aesthetics and even variables I've discussed in my past blogs posts might be a moot point in the future, the more engineered tea trees become.

Can you imagine a day in the future when harvesting the wild tea trees is restricted only to the ethnic minorities in Yunnan? Or maybe the minorities and residents of Yunnan who buy a harvest license for something like $8.25? Say goodbye to all those SUVs of tea buyers trucking in to spend millions buying tea for themselves and their friends. The rest of us will get plantation tea. This isn't so far-fetched when I think of wild rice here in Wisconsin. The day is already here when only residents and ethnic tribes can harvest wild rice, and most Americans already eat plantation wild rice, and rices from other parts of the world rather than our native wild rice. Nobody even thinks anymore about plantation rice as any different from real wild rice. If research directions in puerh tea are any indication, then this is the way of the future for tea cakes as well.

Does all this seem too far-fetched? Do you think there is so much mysticism around ethnic minority traditional products that they will always be available at reasonable prices, and that people will always believe in the seànce-like atmosphere of tea tastings? Or is there a reality we don't want to see, something like Chang-Rae Lee's science fiction story "On Such a Full Sea," wherein we eat fish created in underground "perfect fish" tanks in B-Mor cities? Do we truly believe there will always be natives in Yunnan who really want to spend their time stuffing tea into bamboo tubes, or Ojibwe who will always want to harvest wild rice and stomp out the hulls with moccasins?

The myths still persist, such as the mystical idea of the Ojibwe subsisting on wild rice in this article.
1800s painting Native rice harvest, en.wikipedia.org
And then compare similar mythical ideas about "reclaiming" puerh tea as art, medicine and just a hair shy of magic, in this article.
Tea harvest painting, aneducatedpalate.wordpress.com
The articles might be one day just as outdated as the myths expressed in these paintings. Even though modern photos of wild rice and tea harvests look more realistic, it's tempting to cast the modern photos further above in the same romantic vein as the paintings, but are they truly less mythologized?
Wild rice is my reality check, because I am most certainly not immune to myths and mysticism. When my Hong Kong-based gaming guild (N = 232) invited me to visit them in China, I rather naively told everyone I looked forward to drinking puerh tea with them. I got a good laugh from my friends. "Oh, we don't drink that old stuff, we prefer American coffee."

Requiescat in pace.

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