On Saturday, my novelist friend Nancy Clark and I threw a tea Emily Post-style (right out of her Etiquette book, published in 1922, which was considered a Bible of manners for many decades). It began as an invitation to Nancy's group of Questers, an historically-minded club with chapters all over the United States, which I extended after I spoke to their group on The Pantry before Christmas. Then in June, with a book we are planning together, it quickly morphed into an event specific recreation, but more about that in another blog when the time comes. Nancy and I decided that events such as these in Emily Post's era often had a special guest so we invited Jan Whitaker, author of Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn--A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, to speak on tea rooms in New England. [Well imbibed with tea fare, there was an eager audience.]
Hu-Kwa, still imported and sold by Mark T. Wendell Tea Company in Concord, Massachusetts, was the tea of choice for proper Bostonians and also for our tea party: it is a smoky Lapsang Souchong variety and is lovely hot or iced.
We also wanted to honor local authors and among the assembled were Howard Mansfield, author of evocative books on place and New England history, and most recently the children's book, Hogwood Steps Out; Susan Williams, author of Savory Suppers and Fanciful Feasts--Dining in Victorian America; and of course, Nancy Clark, author of The Hills at Home trilogy of novels, including her most recent and concluding novel, July and August, which came out in June.
A groaning board of tea fare in the dining room
It was a grand occasion and lots of fun--once the nearly 500 tea sandwiches were prepared, cut and put out--and something I've always wanted to do in the house. We've had open houses and dinner parties and barbecues and birthday parties over the years but never a good old-fashioned afternoon tea party, billed, correctly, as an "at home" on the handwritten invitations. [Linda, at far right, with her own brown Betty teapot, which I borrowed for the occasion as it brews a gallon at a time, even brought a calling card! But I had no tray to place it on. She caught me!]
One thing we realized, rather quickly, was that Emily and her ilk would have had waitresses and likely a hardworking cook back in the kitchen. This would have allowed for proper, seamless hostessing. But catering and hostessing in combination do not make for a completely relaxed venue for the hostess(es), something Emily would have frowned upon. But we were rescued by women like Diane, who gladly poured. This job, if not done by the hostess herself, was often designated to a distinguished guest. Diane was perfect in the starring role!
Days before one of the intrepid Cupcakes, who prefers anonymity but is a mean hostess herself (and I mean that in the nicest way, of course!), had told me about a method for polishing silver, something long overdue in our house. I had raided the pantries for enough flatware for the party and this was quickly and easily cleaned with her method, of which her chemist husband had reminded her: find an aluminum roasting pan, put silver flatware in it, sprinkle liberally with baking soda, add boiling water to fill. Et voila! Gleaming, gorgeous silver! Next just rinse well in hot water and rub dry. All of the hard work has already been done by the chemical reaction and what a great alternative to chemical polishes.
Our two boys helped polish up silver, by hand and aluminum pan, in no time. And it makes a great science experiment. [Yup, that's me, caught going into the off-limits silver drawer as a little girl in Akron, Ohio with my friend from the crib, Mary Beth.]
Buttermilk bread awaits baking: Emily Post advocated simple, uncomplicated fare like bread and cakes to be served at afternoon teas
Nancy spent the week before the tea experimenting with several sandwich fillings including a chicken paste (recommended by Emily Post), sliced cucumber and mint with orange butter, a shrimp butter with watercress, and the crowning glory: squares of tomato aspic on buttered bread squares. She also prepared loaves of freshly baked homemade buttermilk bread, served with butter and salted fresh radish slices. While I was readying the house, Nancy did most of the cooking but on the morning of the tea I whipped up some old brownie standbys from my mid-70s version of The Joy of Cooking (Brownies Cockaigne) and two kinds of shortbread (same recipe, different additions): dried lavender blossoms and candied ginger chunks. I also made some easy lavender lemonade.
Nancy and Catherine toast each other with chocolate frappés
Sadly, Nancy's planned finale of chocolate frappés, another Emily suggestion at a summer afternoon tea, were not ready in time for the eager crowd. But the remaining few guests, family members, and clean-up crew happily devoured them after we figured out how to work the ice cream maker (thanks again, Cupcake).
So there you have it: tea for 40, easy, breezy, and lots of fun! Of course, did I ever want to back out of it? Oh many times (sorry, Nancy)--including the day before when our realtor called and wanted to show the house at 10am on the day of the tea party (I convinced him to show the house on Sunday instead)--but a good hostess commits and sticks with the program. I would gladly do it again--but probably not until next summer.
A special note of thanks to Jeanne at www.BlueHouseMarket.com for her lightning fast shipping of a cache of vintage gloves--before I had even paid her! I found them on eBay just two days before the party and we used them in our dining room displays. Now, you'd think a former eBay addict would have thought of this place to find such things a month ago? Clearly I'm in recovery.