At four in the afternoon, everyone feels a little peckish but only the British have institutionalized this feeling. Every year one English magazine or another carries an article about the decline of the tearoom, but teatime still exists and many tea shops serve it. It is a perfect child meal since children and their caregivers tend to droop around four o’clock and need to be revived. –Laurie Colwin, “How to Give a Party,” from Home Cooking.
I love going for tea and I don’t do it as often as I like. I went once with girlfriends to Tea at the Helmsley. Another time I went with different girlfriends to Silver Tips Tea in Tarrytown. I’m dying to go to Kathleen’s Tea House in Peekskill, and dying an even worse death to go to Tea and Sympathy in the West Village.
Tea and tea party scenes in British novels have always appealed to me. Many years ago when I remodeled my old childhood dollhouse, I turned the top floor into the nursery of my imaginations, searching high and low for the perfect round table and chairs on which a miniature tea party could be set. Downstairs in the living room, a resin-cast maid pushed an elaborate tea cart for the afternoon guests. I watch Pandagirl now set up her scenes in that dollhouse and tea always is a feature.
“And to prove it, I’ll take you for a drive…for tea at the Resevoirs in Versailles.” —Louis Jourdan, as Gaston LaChaille in Gigi.
One of the best cups of tea I ever had was in Bermuda. Jeeps and I had just gotten engaged and we…wait a sec, back up, I have to tell you something: he proposed to me in the kitchen. No set-up, no preamble, no ruse. In the kitchen. One minute I was poking around in the cabinets looking for a little something-something, the next minute I’m sobbing on the linoleum floor with a diamond ring on my hand. In the kitchen. It was perfect. Thank you, I just needed to say that.
So we took a little celebratory trip to Bermuda and explored the island end to end, as one does in Bermuda, on a scooter. And one day it rained. Poured. We were at the opposite end of the island from our hotel, soaking wet and starving. We staggered into a small pub and ordered fish and chips and a pot of tea. It hot and strong and sweet and everything I felt high tea should be.
One of the most famous tea parties in literary history is in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the chapter entitled “A Mad Tea-Party.” But guess what? Nothing at the table is described. This is it:
‘Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.
The rest is rapid-fire dialogue consisting of riddles and non-sensical non-sequiturs that eventually drive our young heroine to distraction and away from the party. We don’t even get a bite of bread-and-butter. Feh.
The Mary Poppins books by P. L. Travers, feature another famous tea party: the one on the ceiling. In the movie this takes place at the home of Uncle Albert, played by Ed Wynne. In the book, Mary’s uncle is called Mr. Wigg, and he gives very specific instructions on how tea is to be taken:
‘It is usual, I think, to begin with bread-and-butter,’ he said to Jane and Michael, ‘but as it’s my birthday, we will begin the wrong way – which I always think is the right way – with the Cake!’
And he cut a large slice for everybody.
‘More tea?’ he said to Jane.’
–“Laughing Gas,” from Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers
Mary Poppins, naturally, has her own idea of the perfect tea party, as described in the chapter , “The Day Out,” where she and Bert hop into the chalk picture for an outing:
So, still admiring themselves and each other, they moved on together through the little wood, till presently they came upon a little open space filled with sunlight. And there on a green table was Afternoon Tea!
A pile of raspberry-jam-cakes as high as Mary Poppins’s waist stood in the centre, and beside it tea was boiling in a big brass urn. Best of all, there were two plates of whelks and two pins to pick them out with.
‘Strike me pink!’ said Mary Poppins. That was what she always said when she was pleased.
So Travers gives us a few more particulars of the food served at tea-time. But check out the loving and lavish detail C. S. Lewis provides when describing the tea party shared by Lucy and the faun Tumnus, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:
And really it was a wonderful tea. There was a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them, and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake. And when Lucy was tired of eating, the Faun began to talk. He had wonderful tales to tell of life in the forest…
Notice that toast alone makes up three courses of this tea party. Sardines on toast does nothing for me, however my boss is English and swears by baked beans on toast. My team gave her some serious razzing about it but she held her ground and insisted it is comfort food of the highest order. However, quality baked beans are the key: they must be Heinz vegetarian, served up on white toast topped with sharp cheddar.
Baked beans have a very different memory for me: in my childhood, my mother worked late hours at her dance studio, and quite often it was my father who made dinner. He was no slouch in the kitchen and had a solid repetoire of main courses. But often he was tired after a long day and the evening commute, and so dinner would be a lite fare of scrambled eggs, with Heinz baked beans served on the side.
For the ultimate in tea party descriptions, and for British food in general, nothing beats the mealtime passages in the novels of Rosamunde Pilcher. Here’s one of my very favorite scenes from my very very favorite book, Coming Home:
They sat, Molly Dunbar and her sister-in-law Louise Forrester, on either side of the hearth, with a folding tea-table set up between them. This had been laid with an embroidered linen cloth and the best china, as well as plates containing sandwiches, an iced lemon cake, hot scones spread with cream and strawberry jam, and two kinds of biscuit – shortbread and chocolate.”
‘How,’ [Aunt Louise] now asked Judith through a cloud of cigarette smoke, ‘did the Christmas Party go?’
‘It was all right. We did Sir Roger de Coverley. And there were saffron buns.’ Judith eyed the tea-table. ‘But I’m still hungry.’
‘Well, we’ve left plenty for you to finish up,’ said Molly. Judith pulled up a low stool and settled herself between the two women, her nose on a level with all Phyllis’s goodies. ‘Do you want milk or tea?’
‘I’ll have milk, thank you.’ She reached for a plate and a scone and began to eat, cautiously, because the thick cream and strawberry jam were spread so generously that they were liable to squidge out and drop all over the place.