Time for Tea

By Allene White

Sassafras Bark Tea


If you happen to be enjoying an after-dinner cup of tea on this holiday, you’ll forgive me if I mention that it’s not a traditional Thanksgiving beverage you’re sipping. But so many things have been added to the original menu, you should not worry about this tea break. Inhale the delicious aroma of Oolong — you deserve it!

It’s unfortunate that tea did not arrive in America until after the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. The original colonists at Plymouth could have used a good “cuppa” from time to time. For the Thanksgiving feast, they had to make do with sweet wine made from local grapes, as well as the herbal brews the Native Americans taught them to identify.

The New Amsterdam settlement was the first to have tea because the Dutch had been the first to make it generally available in their country — first selling at $100 a pound — then, as rare and new spices such as ginger and sugar arrived from overseas and more tea was imported, tea became generally available in Holland and then throughout the Western world.

It was not until 1657 that the first public sale of tea was held in London. The publicity read: “Worth twice its weight in silver” and went on to list fantastic claims: tea was a benefit to the spleen, kidneys, eyes, stomach. “It vanquisheth heavy dreams, easeth the Brain and strengtheneth the Memory.”

In 1674, tea houses came to New York; in New England — actually Salem, Mass., — there was a report that tea was boiled for hours, then sprinkled with salt and butter and eaten as a salad.

By 1720, tea was such a favorite of colonial women that England decided to levy a tax on it — a bad decision, as it turned out. Even at this early date, contraband tea was smuggled into the colonies from ports far away, and of course herbal teas were widely accepted by this time.

During the Revolution, tea went out of style for the duration but later reappeared as an accompaniment to meals. It is said that George Washington enjoyed tea for breakfast, along with Indian cakes (cornmeal pancakes) covered with butter and honey. He preferred dining lightly in the evening on tea, toast and wine.

Sassafras seems to be the tea of choice among the native Americans. I am told it grows wild from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico and throughout the heartland of America. It does not appear in Culpepper’s list of plants, so I would assume that it was new to the first settlers. All parts of the tree were used as a curative and for food. Filé powder, made from the dried leaves of sassafras, is still an essential ingredient in creole recipes.


Sassafras Bark Tea

4 pieces sassafras bark (4 by 2 inches)
5 cups boiling water
5 tsp. sugar

Place the pieces of the rosy outer bark of sassafras root in an enamel ware pan or teapot. Pour boiling water over the bark, cover the container. Let steep in a warm place for five minutes. Strain, add cream and serve with sugar, or sweeten with honey. Serves five.


There are several other brews mentioned as a substitute for tea, all originating with the Native Americans. One of these, Bergamot, a member of the mint family, was popular with the Winnebago Indians and preferred by the settlers around Oswego, N.Y.

Catnip was a tea in England long before the first Oriental tea came to Europe — the only one recognized by the colonists. They called it Cat Mint (nepeta cataria) and it was grown in colonial gardens, usually as a remedy for children’s colic, but helpful for insomnia. The tea is made from the leaves and flowering tops.

Clover (trifolium pratense) is high in protein, calcium and phosphorus. Native Americans enjoyed the leaves and flowers both raw and boiled.

Clover blossoms make good honey, clover blossom wine as well as tea, which requires a good handful of red clover blossoms for a two-cup teapot. Cover with boiling water, cover and infuse for five to 10 minutes over very low heat. Strain into a hot cup, add a twist of lemon and sweeten it with honey.

Labrador Tea (ledum groenlandicum) is a small evergreen shrub is a member of the heath family, grows in bogs, woods and swamps. It is said to make a spicy, refreshing beverage that was popular with the American colonists during the Revolution, as was New Jersey Tea (ceanothus americanus), another tea that was made from its leaves during the boycott of English tea. The resulting drink is said to taste much like Oriental tea.

Allene White lives in Brooklin.

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