Toasted Leaves: An Essay on the Origin of Tea

One of the more pervasive legends about tea is that it was supposedly discovered in 2784 B.C. (according to the more detailed accounts) by a Chinese emperor (referred to as Chen Nung in some accounts) who was apparently keen to boil water for sanitary reasons. One day, as the story goes, the emperor was boiling water when some tea leaves were carried aloft on the breeze, landed in the kettle and it occurred to him to drink the resulting brew. The rest was history – or was it?

Toasted Leaves, or "Tudoces Fragrans", An Essay on the Origin of TeaIt all makes for a nice, compact story that’s been retold about a zillion times but it’s one that obviously doesn’t do much to actually explain the origins of tea drinking. Fast forward to 1889 and the publication of Toasted Leaves, or “Tudoces Fragrans”: An Essay on the Origin of Tea. This work was said to be written by “the shade of Charles Lamb,” a popular English essayist, but it was actually penned by Owen A. Gill and “Humorously illustrated by W.G.R. Browne.” A few years earlier Gill had written a work called A Short Account of How Tea is Made, which appeared under his given name.

Toasted Leaves is a short work that appears as though it may have been directed at a younger audience. The colorful illustrations of the Chinese characters may not quite pass muster with the politically correct audiences of today but were probably par for the course in Gill’s time.

The story takes place in the year 1018, some 3,800 years after Chen Nung’s alleged discovery of tea, and opens with the discovery of fire by one Chang Fat. His son, Chang Lin, is a lazy sort who likes to sleep and while he is zonked out one day his father’s hut burns down. Lin manages to save his father’s prize plant, a shrub called Tudoces Fragrans, which had been given to him by a Mormon missionary.

Upon finding that the leaves were scorched, Lin decides to taste them (for whatever reason) and finds that they are quite pleasant tasting. This kicks off something of a craze for toasting the leaves of plants, which was thought quite odd at the time and which lands the pair in court.

As it turns out, the judge in this case becomes a convert to leaf toasting and before long, as luck would have it, his own house catches on fire. Some of the toasted leaves of one of his plants fall into a cauldron and one of the firemen responding to the incident drinks the resulting liquid. His colleagues follow suit and, as the author puts it, “they were soon dancing and singing college glees.”

Which, to be quite honest, is probably not an unreasonable response to one’s first exposure to tea, and to this very day I occasionally find myself “singing college glees” when I drink the stuff.

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