BY MICHAEL HOOD
20 million South Americans can't be wrong.
DAVIDSON PICKS UP a narrow scoop and digs into a wide-mouthed
jar of dry green debris. The stuff looks like bad marijuana.
He scoops it into a palm-sized gourd carved with jungle
flowers, filling it by half. The herb is yerba maté
(Ilex paraguariensis), the rejuvenating stimulant drink
of Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. Davidson is playing
the cebador--host of the maté ritual. He takes
the role very seriously, gazing iconically, drilling
into me with his eyes. He palms the opening of the gourd
and rolls it in his hand. His head down now, he's giving
his full intention to the tea. He tells me he's giving
it "love energy."
get nervous when talk turns to love energy.
sitting in Fremont's Wit's End Bookstore & Tea Shop
on Chinese folding chairs under big fluorescent lights.
It's a cerebral venue usually resistant to love energy--at
least in the daylight.
partner, Palesa Peralta, appears nonetheless to be feeling
it in abundance. "This is about creating community,"
she says. Her eyes are huge, devastating. I get more
tilts the gourd, taps the maté to one side, and
inserts a curved silver straw, called a bombilla. He
covers the tea with cold water--to protect the nutrients,
he says--then lets it rest for a minute before topping
it with hot water from a thermos. The cebador (or cebadora)
always drinks the first tepid gourdful or two. Matt
refills with hot water and hands it (counterclockwise,
for some reason) to me. The brew is hot and smooth.
I take a few minutes to suck the bitter, smokey infusion
through the blazing bombilla, then pass it back to Matt
to be refilled with hot water for Palesa. We pass the
gourd and sip, pass the gourd and sip. (It can be refilled
10 times on a single load of maté.) The talk
takes a turn for the lofty. With terms like "spiritual
connection" and "bridges to communication,"
the mood is part drug ritual, part what we used to call
"group consciousness." Glowing now from the
tea, the eye contact, and the high conversation, I'm
grokking the love energy in here among the used books
and the familiar bookstore stench of espresso, chocolate-chip
cookies, and toner.
and 'round goes the gourd. The talk, thankfully, turns
informative just as I'm about to spontaneously hug one
or both of these earnest young renunciates of caffeine's
false hopes. I snap out of the love bliss and listen
with proper journalistic attention.
AND PALESA are local importers for Guayaki Yerba Maté,
a high-quality, organic, shade-grown product of the
Paraguayan rain forest, raised and processed in limited
production by indigenous Guayaki Indians. (Other matés
coming out of South America are cheaper, I am assured,
but grown in the sun using agrichemicals, and neither
as pure nor as rich in flavor and nutrients.)
contains a stimulant (mateine)--a relative of caffeine
that produces none of its jittery side effects. It also
does not interfere with sleep cycles, nor is it addicting.
It increases alertness and concentration, resistance
to physical and mental fatigue, and confers a feeling
of well-being without the depressant aftereffects typical
of caffeine. Its promoters believe it to be a virtual
wonder beverage--conferring euphoria while exacting
no health penalties. Horacio Conesa, of the University
of Buenos Aires Medical School, says, "There's
not a single medical contraindication" for drinking
maté. Daniel Mowrey, PhD, president of the American
Physiotherapy Research Lab, has studied maté
for 15 years and drinks it daily. He says it may provide
the body with energy through nutrition rather than stimulant
properties. It is rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins,
and fatty acids, and is a more potent antioxidant than
vitamin C. It is also said to increase libido, improve
male sexual performance, help in weight reduction, stop
hair from turning gray, cleanse the blood of waste and
toxins, reduce blood pressure, grow and repair heart
tissue, boost immune response, reduce hay-fever and
allergy symptoms, and relieve headaches and migraines.
WONDER THAT the stuff is selling. It's like Viagra without
the need for a prescription, marijuana without the legal
hassle, and coffee without the corporate unpleasantness
of Starbucks. "It flies off the shelf," says
Jessica McMillan, bulk foods manager of Ballard Market,
which has carried Guayaki products, both in loose-leaf
and tea bag form, since last summer. (Chilled maté--or
terere--can be made with a French press or tea ball;
it can also be melded into latte and chai with sugar
or other flavorings.)
and bombillas sell fast as well, because maté
can be difficult to drink without them. Bulk maté
contains sticks and twigs not found in tea bags, and
nutrition is gained by forcing the tea through the coarser
debris and the screen in the bombilla. (And, of course,
there are the undeniable love-energy-ritual benefits
to the whole gourd thing.)
being undeniably bitter and a little nasty, is an acquired
taste. But let's face it--the same can be said of coffee.
Twenty million people--many of them glamorous gauchos--drink
it constantly. Look for it to take on various forms,
from gourd-delivered to supplemental pill to Snapplesque,
and to be a major contender in the next century's beverage
Weekly, February 18-24, 1999