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Maté-ing ritual
BY MICHAEL HOOD

Why 20 million South Americans can't be wrong.

MATT 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."

I get nervous when talk turns to love energy.

We're 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.

Matthew's 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 nervous.

Matt 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.

'Round 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.

MATTHEW 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.)

Maté 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.

SMALL 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.)

Gourds 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.)

Maté, 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 wars.

Seattle Weekly, February 18-24, 1999

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
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