James Norwood Pratt received the John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award with eloquence and charm.
Bruce Richardson’s emotional introduction of Pratt and his beloved Valerie touched all in attendance in the Britannia dining room on the promenade deck of the HMS Queen Mary, a legendary craft that played a role in the romantic tale.
It was aboard the Queen Mary that Pratt, an 18-year-old student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, first traveled to Europe in 1960. And it was aboard the sister HMS Queen Elizabeth returning to New York that Pratt first met the love of his life, Valerie Turner Pratt, said Richardson. The 40-years between disembarking at New York City and their marriage is one of many remarkable chapters in the life dedicated to sharing with others his appreciation of tea.
Pratt was praised for his many accomplishments, the six books he has authored, including The Tea Lover’s Treasury (1982) and Norwood Pratt’s Tea Dictionary (2010) and the many courses he has taught as well as influential lectures delivered from Zurich, Switzerland and London’s Kew Gardens to The China Tea Research Institute in Hangzhou.
His message elevated America’s tea culture, not for its longevity, but in praise of its diversity and experimentation. “The American tea lover is heir to all the world’s tea drinking traditions, from Japanese tea ceremonies to Russian samovars to English scones in the afternoon. India chai, China green, you name it and we can claim it and make it ours. And that’s just what we are doing. In this respect, ours is the most innovative and exciting tea scene anywhere,” he wrote.
Pratt responded to Richard’s tribute with an acceptance speech of literary style and grace.
He began with praise for John Harney, founder of Harney & Sons Fine Teas and the instigator of the first tea summit, a 1993 gathering of 20 at the Harney’s Connecticut home that first introduced Richardson and Pratt to Jane Pettigrew.
The 1970s and 1980s was a period of solitary tea eccentrics, isolated and with nobody to talk to recalled Pratt, “suddenly, we were family.”
A flowering of new tea enterprises followed, propelling a $10 billion expansion of America’s tea industry similar to that experienced by the growth of wine, he explained. An expert in wine, Pratt credited Roy Fong in San Francisco, Michael Spillane of G.S. Haly and ITI founder Devan Shah for teaching him about tea.
Pratt said that he learned from every one in the assembled tea community, whom he thanked as “My good masters and fellow students of tea,” and went on to say “Thanks to you it can be said, though his sins were scarlet, his books were read.”
The career he described encompasses the history of America’s present-day tea renaissance, of which he is the acknowledged sage and fore-runner. He prophesied America is fated to become a tea consuming society much as it became a wine consuming society, something it was not before.
“Tea is more than a trade,” he claimed, adding, “at the highest level it is more than a livelihood or business but a Calling. Tea chose us, we didn’t choose tea,” he said.
“Let this old man prophesize that the future is in good hands,” said Pratt. “Tea is an ally of the human race. To share the plant’s nectar – which is to say its life blood – is to become civilized,” he said.
“No luxury is cheaper and no conscious-altering drug more benign – take it from me – there is nothing virtual about tea, tea is actual. The leaf receives a lot of care before it reaches our hand or cup,” Pratt told the black-tie crowd: “We like the way it makes us feel.”
“It is us who are making this a tea loving society. …I believe we are tea’s not so secret agents here to help Americans become healthier, happier and a lot less quarrelsome,” he said.
“All of us are agents – agents of that good feeling,” said Pratt, adding that the good feelings, health and happiness brought by tea are “really needed in this time and place.”