Food shortages: would the national psyche deal with the lack of tea?
In 1942, in the middle of World War II, the British government got what one would expect: bullets, artillery shells, bombs. These were the ingredients of the battle, bought to protect the population from physical harm.
But they were also thinking of hearts and minds – the other battle on the home front – and what they needed to do to ensure the country had the resilience to keep calm and move on. So to tackle this psychological battle, they bought all the tea in the world. And damn it, we won.
It makes sense from an emotional point of view. Tea is a crucial symbol for the nation. It is the great caffeinator, the morale booster, more powerful than ammunition (as Winston Churchill said).
And yet, it is a precarious property. Not enough tea is grown in the country to justify our obsession, but even coffee drinkers rely on its presence on the shelves to prove to themselves that everything will be fine. This is not only symbolic because it was introduced to help us get through wars, but because it is the clearest proof that Britain is linked to the rest of the world. After all, we need to have a good relationship with everyone to have enough stuff in our teapots.
Making sure tea was on our shelves during the darkest days of WWII meant making diplomatic decisions, and not just about war budgets – although one estimate has tea as the second most expensive expense. high in 1942. This meant ensuring the safety of the workers of Assam, the United States aside for delivering the goods using their ships, and the Chinese in silver (and, unfortunately, opium).
The result was that the British everywhere were having their cup of tea and everyone felt like things were going to be okay.
Fast forward to now, a different diplomatic era, and social media images of empty supermarket chain tea racks spread symbolic messages in a country battered by multiple theaters of “war.”
There are probably many practical and political factors that contribute to this, but for me the most important part is its impact on the British psyche. The issue is clearly at the forefront of supermarket minds too; in many cases, they have concealed the lack of consumables with box cutouts or cheerful slogans that attempt to sweep away the “the end is nigh” feeling that could cause riots in the streets and in the toilet paper aisle. Which, given the general tension, we are likely to do.
But the problem is, almost 80 years since the government scoured the world for tea leaves, this is a litmus test for the well-being of the country. Having tea in the pot relies on our relationships with other countries. It requires functioning supply chains.
It relies too heavily on imaginations of Empire glory and trade negotiations that have been usurped by self-sufficiency beliefs. The symbolism behind the resilience of a good cup of tea now is that British identity requires transformation, and (to borrow from the French) right now.
What could replace tea as a national food? Is there something local and sustainable that the UK could align with? There is only one thing you can do to solve this puzzle: sit down with a nice cup of tea and a cookie to take care of it.
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