Steeped in History: The Art of Tea

In late July, I received an email from the marketing director of UCLA’s Fowler Museum, with an invitation to a press preview of an upcoming exhibit called, “Steeped in History: The Art of Tea”.

With my Oba-chan, MyLastBite.comAt first I dismissed the email. “I’m the FOOD girl, not the TEA girl”, I thought. “Why would I want to go to an exhibit about TEA? I know absolutely NOTHING about tea.”

Which of course is the reason I HAD to visit the exhibit (with hubby in tow!)… because I know nothing about tea.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I do remember sitting through long and (back then) boring tea ceremonies when I was a child in Japan. And my Okinawan grandmother had a lovely Tatami room (Japanese room with straw mats) that she used for overnight guests as well as for serving tea.

When I visit my father in Scotland, every afternoon we have tea at his house, and on Sundays we get dressed up for classic “high tea” service which includes various pots of teas, pastries, sandwiches and scones.

But my adult “tea life” in Los Angeles never progressed further then (gulp!) Lipton bags, flavored  Stash bags, or Chinese “dieting tea”. So okay, I admit it… I’m sort of TEA IGNORANT, or rather I WAS.

Amazing Tea Service,“Steeped in History: The Art of Tea” exhibition is currently running at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, ending November 29th. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the world history of not only tea, but of the dangerous opium trade as well. I had no idea these two products were so connected.

At the August 14th press preview I attended (with many other food writers, journalists and tea enthusiasts), we were lucky enough to have the guest curator walk us through the amazing exhibit. 

Beatrice Hohenegger is author of the book I’m currently reading called “Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West”. In the preface she writes: What drew me to tea initially was opium. I researched the dark chapter of British colonial trade affairs that forged a sinister link between the two commodities. This led me to look into tea’s existence and significance during the time before the British arrived on the scene, which opened up a fascinating door into the wisdom and the refined sensibilities of Chinese and Japanese thought. From those ancient cultures I learned how tea was used as a medicinal brew in the hills and jungles of Southeast Asia, how it played a central role in the development of Taoist and Zen spirituality, how it stimulated the literary and visual arts, to this day admired and imitated throughout the world.

As you can see, the lady knows her stuff. After the museum tour, I went directly to the gift shop and bought a copy of “Liquid Jade”. Who knew tea was so sexy and dangerous? Beatrice Hohenegger did, that’s who!

Tea in my Kitchen, MyLastBiteWhat did I personally learn from my visit to the Fowler Museum?

Well, I learned that tea is beautiful (from the exquisite pots, to the artwork and even the actual leaves). Tea is mysterious, dangerous and of course is such a huge part of my personal history. 

Most of all I learned that I really have SO MUCH more to learn about tea!

My education continues, as I recently tossed out the stale tea bags in my kitchen, and of course I’ll be searching out authentic, traditional tea houses here in L.A. If you have a favorite, I’d very much appreciate if you’d post the details in the comment section below.

Photos from my visit:

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Entrance to the Fowler Museum

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Welcome Reception

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Exhibit Entrance. Samples of Tea

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Guest curator Beatrice Hohenegger begins the tour

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Amazing examples of tea from around the world

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
From the Collection of Gloria and Sonny Kamm, courtesy of the Kamm Teapot Foundation

Tea Chest Japan, early 20th century
Tea Chest: Japan, early 20th century Wood, exterior paper decoration, tin lining Private Collection. (Photo by the Fowler Museum, used with permission)

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
I loved these Netsuke (miniature Japanese sculptures)

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Guest curator, Beatrice Hohenegger, discusses the painting.
Susanna Truax, 1730. The Gansevoort Limner, possibly Pieter Vanderlyn.

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Antique tea set and teapots

Man and Child Drinking Tea, circa 1720
Man and Child Drinking Tea, circa 1720 Oil on canvas Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Artist unknown, possibly Richard Collins, England, d. 1732 (Photo by the Fowler Museum, used with permission)

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Japanese Tea Room Replica

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Teapot from the Collection of Gloria and Sonny Kamm, courtesy of the Kamm Teapot Foundation

Steeped in History: Art of Tea
Make Tea Not War by UK Design Agency, Karmarama

Steeped in History: The Art of Tea ends on November 29, 2009

The Fowler Museum at UCLA
Phone: 310/825-4361
Museum Website

Special thanks to Stacey Abarbanel

Follow the Fowler Museum on Twitter

All “Art of Tea” Photos on Flickr

Beatrice Hohenegger, author of Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West and editor of the upcoming multi-authored Fowler volume Steeped in History: The Art of Tea. 

Liquid Jade is available on Amazon

More about Netsuke (miniature Japanese sculptures)

Since I’m not familiar with L.A. Tea Rooms, I asked my Twitter pals about their favorites:


A U 79 Tea House

Bird Pick

Chado Tea Room

LA Mill

Montage Beverly Hills

Rose Garden Tea Room at the Huntington 
(I’ve actually been here a few times, wonderful!)

Zen Zoo Tea Cafe

Thanks for the above info!


Filed under Food Events (festivals, classes, etc.)

12 responses to “Steeped in History: The Art of Tea

  1. What a great exhibit! I’ll have to stop by. I have a lot to learn about tea too! 🙂

  2. I would never think there would be an exhibit devoted to tea, but it certainly makes sense. We’re talking about the most historic drink in history, dating back to a couple of thousand years before Christ.

    I’m a big coffee drinker, but I’ve slowly steered myself to incorporate tea – specifically green tea – into my daily regime. There seems to be a sense of zen involved with drinking tea, especially if you do it at the same time every day, and drop everything to enjoy a cup.

    Love the photos. Thanks for sharing, Jo!

  3. Also this is a first for me to know about tea exhibit, pretty amazing!
    And beautiful art! xo

  4. Kat

    Really cool and interesting. The Disneyland Hotel used to do this tea service called The Practically Perfect Tea and Mary Poppins came in and sang and danced. Took my girlfriends for their Christmas gift one year and we had a blast!

  5. How very intriguing this history of tea is. I looovve that tea chest so purdy. I wish I knew more about tea too. My favorite tea is probably that kind they serve you when you have dim sum. I drink like a whole pot of that. Then my hands shake all day but it’s worth it!

  6. I love food history and was enthralled reading this. Had no idea the exhibit was going on. Planning on going before it closes. Thanks for writing about it, sharing your experiences. Great pics as always. And if you go for tea at the Disneyland Hotel I want to go too! That sounds like so much fun. Mary Poppins singing to us?! I’m so there.

  7. Glad to have found your blog via Tokyo Terrace! She’s got great taste in blogging friends doesn’t she!?
    Wow, so how did I not know about this exhibit? After all that was the dept I grajumated from. hmmp. I feel so left out. eh…
    I was lucky enough to grow up with my Chinese side of the family rich with tradition and cuisine. So I’m somewhat familiar with my teas (Jasmine & Oolong are my favs!). But of course, the only thing that gets me going in the morning is espresso and nothing else. Thanks for the list of tea rooms! I must check some out!


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