The Tea Stylist - Portrait: Maria Uspenski
By Linda Gaylard for The Tea Stylist
There are many reasons to attend World Tea Expo, but I’m finding that as I grow into the industry, I’m just as interested in tea people as product.
Maria Uspenski introduced herself to me a few years ago, after The Tea Book was published. She was warm and enthusiastic. One of those rare humans who seems to glow from within. She had long been associated with the expo. Her company, The Tea Spot is a sponsor of the trade show and her inventive blends, well-engineered Steepware®, and dedication to customer care are well-known. Some years she hosts a yoga session in the morning before the conference begins. At The Tea Spot, ten percent of every sale made is donated in-kind to cancer and community wellness programs. What drives this kind of commitment?
I had the opportunity to sit with Maria and chat about her story. Just outside the expo hall and surrounded by its din and noise, we plunked ourselves down in two comfy chairs and as we reflected on her experiences, the conversation seemed to have a noise cancelling effect. Ironically there was no tea.
As with many other tea industry people, Maria left a former career to pursue tea, but there was a pivotal life event that brought about the shift in her attention.
She grew up in a Russian family that enjoyed a cup of classic black tea every night. It was a matriarchal household where both her mother and grandmother had an influence on those around them. They believed that Maria could do anything. Indeed, she pursued many avenues – a dancer, an engineer, an athlete, and owner of a successful tech firm. It was during the tech career over 16 years ago, that she was diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer.
The news left her numb – she was a single mom with two young daughters – this couldn’t be happening to her. She followed recommended chemo treatments and felt overwhelmed with the daunting task of becoming well again. She was determined to understand what was happening to her body, to deconstruct the uninvited guest. This led her to further research the ways in which she could improve her chances of success with the treatments and then continue to stay cancer-free for as long as possible.
“Not tea for the love of tea, but tea for the love of life.“
She discovered medical studies and articles that discussed the benefits of green tea as it related to cancer. Maria explains, “One of the studies that I found most compelling, although it had to do with breast cancer and not the cancer that I had, was regarding an environmentally induced cancer – a study of the women who were in the vicinity of Hiroshima after the bombing and those who weren’t taken out by the first effects of the bomb. There were some pretty tight correlations between the better (green) tea drinkers and those who fared the best.”
Maria started to drink green tea even though the chemo made everything taste metallic. She says, “At this time it was not tea for the love of tea, but tea for the love of life.” She added, “For about 10 years I drank green tea and didn’t like it, but two summers ago something shifted and I thought wow, I can’t wait to have my green tea today! Now I absolutely love Japanese greens.”
After plunging into and researching medical studies on tea and its effect on cancer, Maria was convinced that tea could be part of a plan of treatment for others. The idea for a tea business started to hatch.
By the time The Tea Spot was up and running, Maria had visited countries of origin and learned to understand and love tea for its culture, flavour, terroir and taste. After establishing and building a successful tea business, she could turn her attention to sharing her experience and knowledge of the disease that devastates so many in North America and globally. What better way to do this than by writing a book?
“Cancer Hates Tea” – No really, it does.
It may seem strange to describe a book about cancer as amusing, but Cancer Hates Tea is truly an enjoyable read. Uspenski uses an engaging and convincing approach to the subject. She employs the “uninvited guest” analogy to demonstrate how cancer’s aim is to create chaos by hijacking our body’s ordered systems. She then goes on to illustrate how the corrective effects of tea, constrain cancer’s persistent attempts to take over. Drinking tea pisses cancer off! Even the illustrations are not what we expect to see – they are charming and maybe even a bit whimsical - the product of the talented hand of Hope Larsen, a staff member at The Tea Spot.
Maria’s passion and sense of humour is present throughout, bringing you closer to tea by making it a natural, tasty and positive experience. If she has a manifesto it is to demonstrate to people how easy it is to incorporate this simple beverage into their lives – 5 cups a day. Beginning with Chapter 1 “Cancer 101 – How it Works” and concluding with “Sip on This, Cancer”, it’s hard to imagine how any reader could avoid becoming a convert to tea. I even found myself considering that maybe I should be drinking more green tea!?
This book was long overdue in a world that still doesn’t understand what cancer is. It’s a book that I am glad to have on my shelf. I wish the medical community had known about cancer and tea when my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. She was resourceful in her determination to live and managed to keep on for 30 years, at a time when treatments were not very focused or refined.
Maria’s new trajectory is to work with integrative oncologists. She says, “Cancer is individual rather than being an umbrella disease. It’s important to take control and ownership of it even if all you can do is drink 5 cups of tea a day.”
We finished our visit by chatting about the tea industry and how ‘zen’ it is and that people share and are relatively uncompetitive. Speaking of competitions, Maria and I both won World Tea Awards in 2017. She won for Best Tea Health Advocate and The Tea Book won Best Tea Publication. Thrilling for both of us!