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A review of Sarah Besky's 2020 book Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea.
Tiny, hard cylinders of cut-tear-curl (CTC) tea come to auction at Nilhat House in Kolkata, ready to be imbibed. This CTC tea is subject to a complex lexicon of “teawords,” or taste descriptors such as “bright” or “stewy” that describe the sensual experience of tea tasting, ultimately resulting in a valuation for tea-auction catalogs and outcry auctions. Tea is never valued in a dichotomous “good” or “bad” fashion; instead, tea is always valuable, and all tea is ultimately qualified in some way for a consumer market, somewhere. This process is the crux of Sarah Besky’s ethnography of quality – what is quality, where is it located, how does it endure, and how will it shape the future of tea, tea lands, and laboring bodies?
In Chapter 1, “The Work of Taste,” Besky describes how tea, the process of tasting, and the tasters themselves are entangled with the agricultural landscape (e.g., soil and weather) and the persistence of the plantation system (e.g., laboring bodies and exhaustion). Rather than directly link the colonial-era plantation to the globalized industrial agriculture of today, Besky examines the continued embeddedness of colonialism throughout the tea industry – from the tea itself to the construction of quality, and from market practices to “sick plantations”: that is, those “overworked, exhausted” (p. 137) monocultures that tax the land and the bodies of those who work it. These interconnections emerge from Besky’s “nonlinear view of capitalist value” (p. 19), which captures the economic complexity inherent in every “nice cup of tea” (p. 2).
Tasting Qualities is not an ethnography of colonial legacies and the plantation system, however. The text is an ethnography of quality, situating it historically while encouraging readers to take up this concept in new ways. Quality here is not necessarily the high quality of “the quality turn” in sociocultural anthropology, which often focuses on distinctive, artisanal products (see Meneley 2007; Goodman 2003; Roseberry 1996). In Tasting Qualities, quality is multiple, in flux, and sometimes cheap. CTC tea, for example, is a product for mass consumption and is usually inexpensive. Besky includes an image of one-rupee, single-serving packages of CTC (p. 127) that hang for sale in local shops. This small, plastic package of single-use tea is a product that will be familiar to consumers across Asia and Latin America, often displayed alongside other cheap and convenient goods such as shampoo, laundry detergent, and coffee. Consumers, after all, do not only consume – or desire, for that matter – artisanal, high-quality goods. Thus, Besky’s critical attention on banal, everyday tea is a welcome intervention, engendering new frameworks to think about agricultural production, processes of valuation, the complexity of markets, and experimentation of blending and standardization that make commodities qualifiable.
Tasting Qualities does not solely address what quality is; rather, Besky also unpacks how perceptions of quality change over time – sometimes linked to health and imperial technoscience, and other times linked to the complex qualification processes of brokers in the tasting room. As such, this ethnography locates taste spatially across various tasting rooms, the Nilhat House auction hall, plantations, laboratories, and even a failed e-auction experiment (p. 5). In a way that differs from the sale of other agricultural commodities, tea traders neither trade it on futures markets nor do they taste and evaluate it in an unadulterated state; instead, tea is tasted and evaluated as it is most often consumed by its drinkers, especially CTC tea – that is, with a bit of milk. Unsurprisingly, these quality evaluations are relics of a colonial project whereby science “gave birth not only to the vertically integrated plantation system but also to a rigid system of ethnic hierarchy,” in which Nepalis, Adivasis, and Tamils filled out a prescribed division of labor (p. 77).
Chapter 3, “The Problem with Blending,” looks at how tea chemistry and medical science have studied, over the years, tea tannins and the supposed ill-health effects of consuming these compounds. As such, Besky examines the medical and scientific discourse about tannins, arguing that it was a debate about “the impact of an encounter between white metropolitan bodies and the racialized and potentially polluting bodies of Asian field and factory laborers” (p. 83). In such a context, British industrial chemists standardized a blended tea grown in the country’s imperial possessions, trademarked it as “Empire Tea,” and crafted a marketing campaign highlighting its benefits to metropolitan consumers. This campaign also shaped the way consumers linked tea to health in racialized ways, as “Empire Tea” was usually juxtaposed against “Chinese teas” that were considered fraudulent and adulterated. The multiple projects of experimentation and blending made tea chemistry, and the science of tannins, a valuation project in which notions of quality were shaped via discourses about health and empire. Racialized anxieties and the burgeoning market competition between “Empire” and “Foreign” teas shaped decision-making within the industry, although blending and standardization began to define a distinctly “British” tea despite the obvious fact that no tea leaves grow in the UK.
In Chapter 5, “The Quality of Cheap Tea,” Besky turns to the making of monoculture in the Himalayan Dooars region and the way it endures, held in place by certain “institutions, practices of valuation, forms of labor, tastes, flavors, ideas of quality, and expectations” (p. 135). Tea plantations in decline are not abandoned in the Dooars, or left “feral” to use Anna Tsing’s description (2015) of abandoned monocultures. Even as these tea plantations are “sick” and often abandoned, they are still occupied by workers who remain hopeful for their resurgence. Sick plantations are thus strategically liminal, biding the owners’ time until they decide to begin production again. Workers are also embroiled in this sickness – as they are literally sick and starving but are nonetheless forced to wait because of the “geographic isolation of the Dooars, linguistic and ethnic discrimination, the need to care for aging relatives, and the fact that [their] houses were attached to the plantation” (p. 141). The efforts to reform this colonial-era plantation system through the expansion of smallholder farms exacerbates the stress on the land and the bodies of its workers, creating a hierarchy of quality in which Dooars tea is “not known for its taste” (p. 141).
Chapter 6, “The Quality of Markets,” thinks through the auction as it shifts from the outcry model described in earlier chapters to a modernized “e-auction” system. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the first attempts to roll out this new system fail in spectacular fashion, in part because buyers have lost the ability to perform the sociocultural aspects of bidding on tea lots but also because of faulty hardware. Besky reveals the nuances of the market here – always political and abstract, but also cultural and intimate. Buyers’ frustration seems less about the shift in bidding practices and more about the “perceived violation of an aesthetic and ethical connection between a style of trading, a style of production, and a style of consumption” (p. 168). But a “modern” tea market necessitates up-to-date technology, and the e-auction semiotically represents this transition, even when it fails. This chapter is an invitation for “the anthropology of finance to join studies of environment and development by critically engaging megaprojects that do not take the form of dams, roads, or other modernist structures” (p. 174). This generative proposition asks anthropologists to think creatively across subfields, illuminating how scholarship on infrastructure, finance, labor, and agriculture are never mutually exclusive.
Ultimately, it is a conversation between Besky and Mr. Sarkar, the Niraj Tea factory manager, that captures what exactly quality does – “even though the company’s blends of tea are cheap, a lot of work goes into making them taste and feel a certain way” (128). Even inexpensive tea must be of a certain quality because it still must be marketed, and consumers of course need to purchase it, no matter how cheap it is. In this regard, Besky’s work encourages us to think about how notions of quality permeate tea, cheap or not, for tea must always taste and feel a “certain way” regardless of its valuation. Although tea is unique as a fragile perennial crop – harvested weekly for much of the year – the experimentation that perpetuates the contemporary tea system, including its inoperable plantations and workers waiting for them to rematerialize in form and function, encourages readers to think carefully about how experimentation is a process worthy of our attention. Along these lines, how is quality constructed through historical processes of experimentation in other “cheap” agricultural industries? What do the archives in other agricultural areas reveal about their equivalents of “sick” tea plantations – that is, those unproductive lands still occupied in the hope that work will return even as they decimate the bodies of their workers? In addressing these questions, Besky offers anthropologists and other interdisciplinary scholars an ethnography to teach, think with, and push their studies of work, agriculture, finance, and commodities a bit further toward our collective understanding of quality.
Goodman, Michael. 2003. “The Quality ‘Turn’ and Alternative Food Practices: Reflections and Agenda.” Journal of Rural Studies 19 (1): 1-7.
Meneley, Anne. 2007. “Like an Extra Virgin.” American Anthropologist 109 (4): 678-87.
Roseberry, William. 1996. “The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States.” American Anthropologist 94 (4): 762-75.
Tsing, Anna. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Sarah G. Grant is Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton. Her research examines the Vietnamese coffee industry and the ways in which it illuminates post-renovation histories of environment and livelihood, state regulatory practices, global aspirations, consumption culture, and anxiety around climate change in Southeast Asia.
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