Every afternoon at precisely four o’clock my mother’s teakettle let off a piercing shriek. It wasn’t just background noise, or an auditory adjective amid the jostle of supper preparations. It was a signal, a summons. And my sister and I knew exactly what it meant: it was time to lay aside whatever we were working on and make our way to the living room without delay. Sometimes I did this grudgingly, loathe to step away from the sewing machine or the lesson plan or the literature assignment. But it was always a light and momentary pique, and forgotten utterly the moment I set eyes on Mama’s cherry game table laid with her grandmother’s silver tea service, a plate of cookies or a dish of berries, and three delicate Blue Italian cups and saucers. Ours was a warm, rollicking, essentially informal home, and there were many, many particulars in which we did not stand on ceremony—but afternoon tea was not one of them. My mother made sure we did honor, not only to the moment at-hand, but also to the whole essence of ritual and beauty behind it. In insisting that we pause in the middle of our busy days for a cup of hot tea and a bit of feminine conversation, she instilled valuable lessons about the balance of work and rest and the importance of each-otherness. But she also connected us to a heritage far beyond the confines of our own lives, and reminded us that no matter how rushed or scary or cynical the world became, there would always be anchors of custom to keep us connected to the people in our lives—both those present and those who have gone before.
In the midst of all the glad bewilderment of growing up, that tea table was an oasis of shared civility, confidences, inside jokes, whispered hopes, good advice. Sometimes my father came in from the courthouse and pulled up a chair, before which another blue cup magically appeared, and his laughter and stories would raise our genteel chatting to a new level of raucous mirth. Occasionally a friend would stop by just in time (a dear one lived nearby who could all but hear our kettle going off), or be invited on purpose. But all too soon it was time to disband, back to our work with renewed clarity and our ambitions with freshened spirits. I might have balked from time to time at those moments of non-optional companionship, but I would not trade them for the world. I loved them at the time; I cherish them now among my dearest memories of home.
Tea is such a simple ceremony, it surprises me how little it’s practiced in our day. And I don’t mean the little Yogi motto dangling over the edge of a mug or the Starbucks version at the drive-though window. I mean the act—and art—of sitting down with another person (or even alone) to a well-appointed tea tray where thoughtfulness and care have attended even the most basic of preparations. I mean taking tea, not consuming it on the fly, as we’re all tempted to do in this over-booked, over-caffeinated world of ours. To take tea is to receive something; it is a gift of mindfulness, gentleness and grace. To partake in company is to merge with a great tradition of civilized communion, which has its version in nearly every culture on earth. Whether it’s matcha sipped reverently in a Japanese teahouse, smoky “Russian Caravan” steeped in a Moscow samovar, or mint tea poured from a standing position with a distinctly Moroccan flair, the allure of ritual remains. There’s something so affirming about connecting with the way things have always been done—or, at least the way they’ve been done for a long, long time.
We live in such a self-conscious era, I sometimes wonder if diffidence is more to blame than busyness for the decline of afternoon tea; we don’t take tea because we don’t know how. It’s intimidating to watch those British bonnet dramas with their parade of Limoges and silver sugar tongs (and what on earth is a slop bowl, and why is it on the tea table?), and with a certain wistfulness we’re tempted to relegate such scenes to the shades of antiquity. But our friends across the Pond still firmly stop for their beloved cuppas; I’ve seen them do it, from toddlers to teenaged boys to matronly grandmothers—and everyone in between. And while the culture of “proper tea” may never have taken on as firmly in the United States as in a country where a considerable slice of the population can claim at least as much Darjeeling running in their veins as blood (and while a certain Tea Party in Boston Harbor may have more than a little to do with it), I know there’s a distinctly American contingency, “little but fierce,” still holding the line for chatter-broth and high civility. I suspect, moreover, that these ranks would swell considerably should one generation of Americans catch the spirit of the brilliantly British art of the afternoon pause. There’s nothing like a chat, a bit of bone china, and an infusion of Camellia sinensis to buoy one over the three o’clock slump. Beats coffee in a Styrofoam cup any day.
I’ll confess, coming from a long line of Anglophiles, my tea habits have a distinctly English accent. But the components of a proper tea are simple enough: all you need is a real pot (no mug-brewing, please), a sugar bowl and creamer, pretty cups and saucers (mugs are permissible at this point, provided they’re not emblazoned with faded motivational slogans), teaspoons, sugar spoon, and a bite of something sweet or savory. Real napkins, though not requisite, are an easy hint of refinement that won’t go unnoticed, and a small dish of sliced lemons is always a considerate touch (my great-grandmother usually embellished hers individually with whole cloves). And the rules are even simpler: start with good tea (PG Tips or loose-leaf Twinings are reliable provisions), “hot” the pot with a round of steaming water while the kettle is coming to a boil, and never bring the kettle to the pot—always the other way around. A safe guide for loose tea is one teaspoon per person and one for the pot (I can hear Bertie Wooster musing with that silly lilt in his voice, “I don’t know why the pot should get one . . . ”), and always pour the boiling water—boiling, not “boiled”—over the tea. (The exceptions to the latter rule are green and more delicate white teas, in which case the water should be heated only to the point of steaming so as not to embitter the flavor of the leaves.)
The beautiful thing about serving afternoon tea is that it can be as formal or relaxed as the occasion requires. All that really matters is an attentive, fully present heart and a hospitable imagination. When I was in my early twenties, I led a little discipleship group for girls in which we connected the various tenets of etiquette to a larger vision of simply putting other people first. I tried to instill in these young ladies an ideal which I constantly need to be reminded of myself: the whole purpose of civility is to create an environment in which others are honored and placed at ease. All the lovely airs and graces of tea are meaningless if they’re not practiced within a context of practical love. My little Demitasse Club learned to set a well-appointed table, to extend (and receive) invitations, to make introductions. They took turns as hostess and practiced serving each other in every sense of the word, with prim little queries of, “Cream? Sugar? Lemon?” They knew to have a pitcher of hot water nearby for guests who liked their tea a bit weaker, and they could spot the difference between sterling and silver plate across the room. Some learned the hard way that lemon and milk added to a single cup of tea will curdle rather alarmingly; all were reminded that hats and gloves, while perfectly apropos for a guest, were a no-no for the hostess.
My girls never smacked, slouched or—horrors!—dipped their own spoon into the sugar bowl. Much more importantly, however, they modeled for me a gentility that was utterly sincere and untainted with pretense. They were a little shy at first about sitting at the head of the table when it was their turn to play hostess, particularly after I explained that one of their main duties was to keep the conversation flowing and inquisitive, and to make sure that no one was left out. But such qualms were forgotten as soon as the seat was occupied and the responsibility assumed: I watched those little girls flower with kindness, attentiveness, and a sweet dignity that ennobled their ingenuous questions and conversations with a lovely grace. One young hostess might surreptitiously have added nine spoonfuls of sugar to her tea, but her smiling gaze never disengaged from the talk going around the table. They honored each other with their shared ritual and their shared solicitude, so artlessly, so earnestly it was a joy to behold.
We’ve all heard it said, but it bears repeating: courtesy isn’t only a door into someone else’s heart—it’s the cure for self-consciousness.
During our Scottish honeymoon, my husband and I stayed at an absurdly charming little bed and breakfast on the banks of the River Tay, and the moment we pulled up I knew it was run by an Englishman: the rose-covered cottage, the gravel court upon which no leaf dared to drop, even the mannerly geese among the rushes by the water all felt more “Beautiful South” than southern Highlands. With no slight to my thoroughly civilized Scottish friends, there was just an air of unmistakable gentilesse about the place. My suspicions were confirmed as soon as we’d been ushered into the formal front parlor. Not only was our host English, he seemed determined from the first seconds of our acquaintance to make us feel our un-Englishness. I was surprised to see he meant to take tea with us—what’s more, he intended my husband to serve it. With something like a gleam in his eye he produced the tray, terrible with heavy old silver and paper-thin china, then settled back into his chintz armchair to watch Philip run his gauntlet.
I looked on with pounding heart. But Philip was nothing daunted. There, in that little English parlor in the heart of Scotland, my exhausted, jet-lagged young husband prepared cups and poured tea through a silver strainer out of a massive old pedigreed pot, all the while maintaining an unflagging stream of intelligent conversation that would have put George Knightley to shame. He passed our proprietor’s cup with a grin, and lifted his own with an easy flourish. I was so proud I could have kissed him on the spot.
I’m not sure what our host was expecting out of his little experiment. Maybe—just maybe—behind that stiff upper lip of his there lurked the merest mental tip of the hat, or the ghost of a smile. We’ll never know. But I do know that a proper tea is more about presence than particulars. And I have hope that the art and grace of afternoon tea will never wholly vanish from the earth, even in an increasingly uncouth and utilitarian society. Every day someone new is taking up the grand old liturgy of teatime and re-expressing it in their own native tongue. And while the English may smile at some of our more—tepid—versions of their national avocation, I can’t help but think they’re glad to see the least approach towards ceremony in that wild, young upstart of a country across the way.
Even if we do have a rather uncivilized tradition of dumping our tea into the ocean.
This piece was originally published on the Art House blog, February 2016.
All photographs by the talented Mark Geil, from the Lucy Maud Montgomery tea party that Jennifer Trafton Peterson and I hosted at Hutchmoot 2015.