A Sparkling Vintage Life

tea gown

Time for Tea!


Afternoon tea and conversation…the perfect combination! Come sit down, pour yourself a cuppa, and let’s dish about the delight that is afternoon tea. If you’d prefer to read rather than listen, scroll down to find a transcript.

Show Notes: Brambleberry Cottage

Tea and Tattle podcast

Peanut, warming herself on my printer.

Jennifer’s fiction:

You’re the Cream in My Coffee

Ain’t Misbehavin’

Songbird and Other Stories

Transcript of Episode 16: Time for Tea! This is Episode number sixteen of the podcast, and today we’re talking about tea and tea parties.

But first, a quick update on my writing. I’m closing in on finishing the novel set primarily in 1930s Hollywood. I should have that done in a few weeks. Then it will go to an editor, and then to my agent to see if he likes it and want to represent it to publishers. If he does, I’ll leave it with him and start on my next book. If he chooses not to represent it, which could happen for any number of legitimate reasons, then I’m going to explore other options, like publishing it myself. I’m a little scared of self-publishing a novel, as the process seems daunting. But I did self-publish a short-story collection earlier this year, called Songbird and Other Stories, and that process went smoothly. The agent is already representing a different novel of mine, featuring the rise of a businesswoman from the ashes of the Great Depression, but that one has not found a buyer yet. I’m also still planning on producing large-print and audio editions of Songbird. So I’ve been pretty busy on the writing front.

And now on to today’s topic, which is tea. A few days ago I went to afternoon tea with a dear friend. Our tea date has become a tradition that we try to follow at least once a year. This is not just your typical Starbucks run, although I love those get-togethers, too. Afternoon tea is special. My friend and I use the occasion to get all gussied up in our favorite dresses. We drive to Spokane, Wash., which is about ninety minutes away from where we live. Our preferred spot is called Brambleberry Cottage, which is an old house that’s been turned into a tea cafe. Each room is beautifully decorated, and the staff is warm and friendly. You get to choose your tea from a long menu of types and flavors, and it comes to your table in little individual pots. The tables are decorated with antique linens and fine china, all different patterns and colors, and there’s soft instrumental music playing. The food comes on a tall, multi-level tray.

I recently learned that the name for this three-tiered structure is a “curate’s assistant.” Unable to find a reason for this name, I have to assume it has something to do with church services, possibly the serving of communion.

Anyway, back to our tea, the food includes everything from little cucumber and chicken-salad sandwiches to scones and crumpets to desserts. There’s something for everybody here, and the exact menu varies with the seasons and the cook’s whims. These morsels are dainty in size, but there’s plenty of them, and we always leave the table satisfied. But best of all is the conversation, the unhurried time to catch up one-on-one with my friend, both during tea and on the drives there and back. One time when the weather was too nasty to drive to Spokane, I invited my friend over to my house for tea. I pulled out my prettiest linens and china and made a variety of special things to eat, and of course I brewed tea. It was lovely and fun, but it was also a lot of work. I’m just as happy to travel to the tearoom and let them take care of us for a couple of hours.

I got to thinking about what it is that makes going out for afternoon tea so special. I decided on six reasons, in no particular order.

Reason #1: It’s a time to dress up. In today’s uber-casual world, and even more so I think in a rural area, it’s hard to find reasons to dress up. It’s also increasingly hard to find people who even like to do it. Many take pride in their extremely casual appearance, as though it’s a badge of authenticity or down-to-earthness, or I-don-t-care-what-anyone-thinks-ism, or even mild rebellion. I like to dress up, and to spend time with people who also like to dress up. Afternoon tea gives me that excuse, if I need an excuse, which I don’t always. I should add that I also love the feeling of changing back into casual clothes when I come home, so I get the joy of doing that, too., when I go out for tea.

Reason #2: It’s a time to enjoy being a lady. You don’t see a lot of men at the tearoom. Not that men aren’t welcome there, and you do see the occasional male, but they always look slightly ill-at-ease among the delicate china and frippery. I’m not saying it’s a good thing for men to be ill-at-ease. I’m just saying that it’s nice once in a while to visit a place that’s so over-the-top feminine. I also like that the setting brings out everyone’s best manners. At home I may slouch and slurp my soup, but at the tearoom I sit up straight and mind my manners, and I’m reminded that I’m capable of being a more polite person.

Reason #3: Tea time is time off the clock. Once we’re seated at our table admiring the gracious surroundings and sipping our tea, we have no worries about where we need to be and what time we need to be there. I deliberately schedule a generous amount of time for tea so we don’t have to rush.

Reason #4: It’s time with my friend. We don’t see each other very often, and when we do, there are usually other people around: other friends, her family, my family. For just the two of us to go out and enjoy some deep, meaningful conversation in an unrushed way–that’s really special to me. It’s like we’re saying to each other, You’re worth spending time with. You deserve my attention, and I’m interested in your life and in what you have to say.

Reason #5 to love tea-time: It feels literally like a step back in time. From what I’ve read in old magazines and books, afternoon tea used to be observed a lot more regularly by women. There are recipes for tea cakes and patterns for tea gowns. Before World War II, our small-town newspaper used to report on tea parties: who hosted them and who the guests were, and who poured. It was considered an honor to pour. Often the guest of honor was given that duty.

I got curious about this, and about the etiquette of teatime in general. I learned that the time of day usually considered teatime is four o’clock, and it’s meant to be a late-afternoon break between the strenuous hurry and preoccupation of the day and the formality of a later dinner, at least in traditional upper-class households. For middle- and lower-classes teatime was more often to be what in my house, growing up, was called an after-school snack.

If you’re hosting tea in your home, the atmosphere is important. If it is winter, a fire in the fireplace and a few lighted candles are nice.  In the summer if the weather’s nice, you might want to serve the tea outdoors, in which case it veers into the garden party, a concept which deserves its own episode, and will eventually get one. I also found out that there is considerable difference between “tea” and “a tea.” The latter, “a tea,” is a party and calls for, as one etiquette book put it, pretty decorations and one’s best afternoon gown and white gloves. A tea will likely include from several friends to a whole community of women, such as a club tea or church tea. It might also be called a “reception.” By contrast, an invitation that says, “come for a cup of tea on Tuesday” usually means a quiet corner, an intimate talk, and the restful atmosphere which teacups for two always suggest. Also, for those who may be wondering, “high tea” has nothing to do with status or level of formality or, heaven forbid, snootiness. A high tea is merely a more substantial tea that’s more like a light supper, with heartier food but less than a full-on dinner party. In the olden days, high tea sometimes preceded a game of bridge or an informal dance.

For those of you wondering about the custom of raising one’s pinkie finger while drinking from a delicate china cup, I’ve heard that the custom resulted from a princess, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, who’d broken her finger and was thus unable to bend it. As often happens, the ladies of the court imitated her, and the custom spread. A less colorful but more probable explanation is that the handles of most teacups, unlike the hefty mugs out of which we drink our coffee, do not accommodate all of our fingers. The pinkie is extended to balance the cup in the hand. Whatever the reason, most etiquette experts agree that obviously lifting one’s pinkie while taking a sip is an affected and silly gesture.

The sixth and final reason I love afternoon tea is that it is rare. Not much happens in the way of tea parties anymore. Do little girls still have them? Maybe afternoon tea fell out of favor because so many women have careers outside the home now, so afternoon social events of any kind aren’t really practical. Or maybe it’s because we’re so much more invested in spending time with our kids that a quiet, adult-centered activity like a fancy tea is out of the question, at least while the kids are young. Or maybe it’s just too fancy, too formal, for most modern women’s taste. But when I go to afternoon tea, I feel like I’m participating in a sisterhood that goes back thousands of years.

How about you? Do you enjoy the occasional afternoon tea? Or is that a little too much frou-frou for you?  You can let me know in the comments.

Today’s grace note is another podcast. In keeping with today’s topic, I’m recommending the “Tea and Tattle” podcast. This is a sublimely interesting podcast, hosted by the articulate and very British Miranda Mills, that’s mainly about books and authors, but also about creative women in general, doing all sorts of interesting things. The conversations are fun to listen to, and I always learn a lot. You’ll find the Tea and Tattle podcast at teaandtattlepodcast.com, or search for it on your favorite podcast host. If you have a topic you’d like me to cover or a question you’d like answered on A Sparkling Vintage Life, feel free to send me an email at jenny@sparklingvintagelife.com. Also, if you can take a few minutes to stop by iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts and leave a star rating, or even better write a quick review, that will help raise the visibility of this little show so that more of gentle souls like you can find it.

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Jennifer Lamont Leo