A friend who was visiting from America put a teabag into a cup of water and stuck it in the microwave. As I was explaining to her all the ways that was wrong, I mentioned that I accidentally committed a tea party once. A real one, with cucumber sandwiches and a proper aspidistra.
Of course, I’ve attended other tea parties. But the guests tended to have names like Mr. Bear and Miss Dolly. So when the friend who owned the castle I was living in suggested we do a proper afternoon tea in support of our annual village charity, I had to remind her that as an American, I’m tea-impaired. I had already been living in her medieval castle in the north of England for a couple of years, but all I really knew about tea at that point was the following:
- Builders Tea: so called because anyone – but especially builders – who comes to your house to do any sort of job will be physically incapable of completing their task until they have demanded, received, and consumed at least one cup of black tea. They will also expect biscuits, but relax. Although everyone I knew when we lived in Virginia would shudder, this does not mean fluffy, buttery rolls. It doesn’t even really mean cookies, at least not in the American ginormous-chocolate-chip-and/or-nut-crammed-cardiac-event-waiting-to-happen sense of the word. Pretty much any flat carbohydrate will do nicely here.
- Tea-time: any late afternoon time between three and six o’clock when you might try to drive somewhere but can’t because of the tea-time traffic, try to contact a business but can’t because of their tea-time break, or try to talk to your builders but can’t because they are in my kitchen drinking tea-time black sludge. With biscuits.
- Tea-menu: tea plus teeny little bits of bread or scones with butter and jam. NOT jelly, because here in England that’s the name for the gelatinous substance you put into ice-cube trays and make into vodka shooters. (Since, here in England, you’re never going to need those trays for actual ice, of course.)
- Cream Tea-menu: #3 plus clotted cream, one of the great taste inventions ever. (Sadly, however, minus the vodka shooters.)
- High tea: something they only have in posh American hotels where they try to sneak actual food onto the tea menu.
- Tea without Tea: When I picked up my dog from the kennel, I was assured that she had already finished her tea. Apparently anything consumed late in the afternoon qualifies here, and actually her dogfood probably tastes better than most tea biscuits.
But really, I asked my friend, how hard could it be to slap a teabag into a mug of hot water and add a couple of biscuits on the side? She turned pale, and decided we’d need more people. A week later I faced the Tea Party Committee. The Committee was polite. The Committee was firm. The Committee was not going to let me anywhere near actual tea-making. The castle where I lived was about a thousand years old, but the latest round of renovations dated to Victorian days. So The Committee decreed that our tea party would have to be a proper Victorian presentation: bone china teacups, linens, and tiny cloth napkins. We would need waitresses in white aprons and little caps pushing properly-squeaky trolleys (serving carts). We would need a pianist. And, of course, an aspidistra to put in front of the piano. And most of all, we would need teapots. Lots of teapots.
Luckily, I was able to give them good news about my sandwich research. There is now a Costco nearby, and they would do us up trays of hearty sandwiches – roast beef, ham, turkey, cheese – on a variety of breads. The Committee looked a bit shaken, but stayed strong. No meat could contaminate our tea. Sandwiches must be made from cucumber so thinly sliced that one would probably serve the hundreds of people we were expecting. The only other sandwich choice would be egg and mayonnaise. Plus we’d need lots of scones.The Committee eyed me dubiously. Sadly, most of them were victims of my earlier scone attempts when it was my serving turn for Village Coffee. They decided to solicit contributions from their more reliable village bakers. In a generous moment of reconciliation, however, they did grant me permission to bake hundreds of mini American muffins (cupcakes) for the pudding (dessert).
The Committee had me on the ropes, but I came back strong. “What about flowers? Should I order those?” The Committee looked like I’d suggested putting murdered puppies on each table. “BUY flowers? In summer?“ As if our village couldn’t even garden? O the shame!
I spent the next weeks scouring eBay and local charity shops for china tea cups, and going to the sixty or so households in our little village to borrow teapots. In an amazing burst of generousity, the scones, tablecloths, napkins, and offers to help rolled in. The day before, people showed up with massive armloads of flowers and arranged them. The piano was tuned and aspidistra installed. Tables filled the castle ballroom, each with a linen cloth. The teenaged waitresses we’d recruited eyed their little white caps and lacy aprons with horror, but—English girls are so well brought up—each put hers on, at least for the photos. And, miraculously, we had almost fifty teapots, in which, the Committee informed me firmly, I would NOT be permitted to make any tea. They figured the place I could do least damage was showing people to their table.
And the people came! They bravely consumed gallons of tea, cheerfully tucked into microscopic sandwiches, and dutifully purchased extra ‘puddings’ from the cake stall. In the end, we raised respectable amounts for our charity. But better still, I know where all those teapots live and I’m so ready for the next tea party.
NOTE FROM BARB: There was one completely unexpected tea-party outcome—a royal one. Come back next Thursday to hear all about it!