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Guest post by Peri Taub, PTWP (Pandemic Therapist With Paws).

Americans have a love/hate relationship with royalty. We don’t really get what it’s for, we wouldn’t want to have it ourselves, but we’re fascinated with the look and concept.

In her upcoming book, OMD, Peri explains about the time we committed a tea party and met a future king.

A friend who was visiting from America put a tea bag into a cup of water and stuck it in the microwave. While explaining the many ways that was wrong, Barb mentioned that she knew all about tea because she accidentally committed a tea party once. A real one, with cucumber sandwiches and a proper aspidistra*.

*[The aspidistra is a remarkably ugly plant, prized for its spiky foliage’s ability to survive in dark Victorian households with little water and less sunlight.]

Of course, for most of Barb’s life, her usual tea parties involved tiny tables and very milky tea. The guests tended to have names like Mr. Bear and Miss Dolly. So when the friend who owned the castle we were living in suggested we hold a proper afternoon tea in support of our annual village charity, we had to remind her that as an American, Barb is tea-impaired. We had already been living in the medieval castle in the north of England for a couple of years, so we did know a few things about tea:

  1. 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 Barb knew when she 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.
  2. Tea-time: any late afternoon hours 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 our kitchen drinking tea-time black sludge. With biscuits.
  3. Tea-menu: tea plus teeny little bits of bread or scones with butter and jam. NOT jelly, because here in the UK that’s the name for the gelatinous substance you put into ice-cube trays and make into vodka shooters. (In England, you’re never going to need those trays for actual ice, of course.)
  4. Cream Tea-menu: #3 plus clotted cream, one of the great taste inventions of all time. (Sadly, however, minus the vodka shooters.)
  5. High tea: something they have in posh American hotels where they try to sneak actual food onto the tea menu.
  6. Tea parties for pets? How is that a thing? Even in England? When Barb picked me up from Auntie Norma’s Doggie Day Spa, she was astonished to hear “Peri has already had her tea.” Apparently, anything consumed late in the afternoon qualifies here, and actually I strongly suspect my dogfood tastes better than most tea biscuits.
  7. What Tea is not: Iced. Especially not Long Island Iced Tea. A darn shame, says Barb…

“But really,” Barb answered her friend’s tea-party proposal, “how hard could it be to slap a teabag into a mug of hot water and add a couple of biscuits on the side?”

Her castle friend turned pale, and muttered that we were going to need more people. Lots more. A week later, Barb faced the Tea Party Committee. The committee was polite. The committee was firm. The committee was not about to let her anywhere near actual tea-making.

The English castle we were living in was about a thousand years old, but the latest round of renovations dated to Victorian days. So the committee decreed our tea party would have to be a proper Victorian presentation: bone china teacups, embroidered linens, and tiny cloth napkins. We would need waitresses in white aprons and little caps pushing properly-squeaky trolleys (serving carts for those who speak American).

We would need a pianist and, of course, a scary-spiky aspidistra plant to put in front of the piano. But most of all, we would need teapots. Lots of teapots.

Barb and 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 generosity, the scones, tablecloths, napkins, and offers to help rolled in.

Barb thought she had good news about our sandwich research. There was now a Costco nearby, and they could do us up trays of hearty sandwiches – roast beef, ham, turkey, cheese – on a variety of breads, all personally taste-tested and approved by me. *

*[For some reason, Barb doesn’t place much faith in my taste-testing. She points out that I have never actually refused to eat any bread, or anything that might have held bread, or had a picture of bread on its packaging. She even brought up that time I ate the bread covered in mold, and we had to spend Saturday night at the Doggie Emergency Room. As her therapist, I added a note to Barb’s treatment plan: “Patient attitude is way too judgmental. Needs work.”]

The committee looked a bit shaken, but stayed firm: no meat would be permitted to contaminate our tea. Sandwiches must be made from cucumber so thinly sliced that one cucumber would probably serve the hundreds of people we were expecting. The only other sandwich choice would be egg and cress with mayonnaise. Plus we’d need lots of scones.

The committee eyed Barb dubiously. Sadly, most of them were victims of her earlier scone efforts that time it was Barb’s serving turn for village coffee morning. So many of her scone attempts were surreptitiously passed to me that I threw up under the dining room table as soon as we got back to the castle. The committee decided it would be safer to solicit contributions from their more reliable village bakers. In a generous moment of reconciliation, however, they did grant Barb permission to bake hundreds of mini American muffins (cupcakes) for the pudding (dessert).

The committee had Barb on the ropes, but she came back strong. “What about flowers? Should I order those?”

The Tea Party Committee gave a collective gasp of horror, as if Barb had suggested putting murdered puppies on each table. “BUY flowers? In summer? As if our village couldn’t even garden?” O the shame!

The day before the tea party, most of the village showed up with massive armloads of flowers and arranged them. The piano was tuned and aspidistra installed. Tables covered with vintage embroidered cloths filled the castle ballroom.

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 obediently donned her costume, at least for the photos. And, miraculously, we had almost fifty teapots, in which, the committee informed Barb firmly, she would NOT be permitted to make any tea. They figured the place Barb 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, Barb and I knew where all those teapots lived and we were so ready for our next tea party.

And best of all? Check out my next post to see what came after that tea party!