By Laura Fieselman
The women in my family cultivate an aesthetic at the dining table that calls into question even the best decorating and food magazines. Name an occasion and serving bowls surface from hidden cupboards, table linens appear from closets in the back of the house, and flatware arrives from drawers I’ve never seen. Menus are considered and reconsidered, preparatory work begins months in advance, and shopping is undertaken with delight. French countryside, American farmhouse, Italian holiday, turn-of-the-century modern, historic Williamsburg–they are equipped to celebrate in any number of styles and flavors. Hosting a holiday dinner can mean thinking about potential tablescapes for months in advance or planning a menu that will compliment a particular set of china. This is what the women of my family do, and they do an outstanding job.
A recent addition to my aunt’s entertaining collection prompted her to host a Valentine’s Day tea party. Delayed by our snow-maggedon but determined to celebrate, we gathered on a Sunday afternoon in February at her Chatham County home and admired the wintry mix that lingered in the fields. From matriarch to baby, dressed in our best, our crowd of ten spanned a 90 year age range, all of us delighted at the prospect of an English tea party, a heritage to which we can hardly lay claim.
My aunt, true to form, had set a beautiful table and we oooh-ed and aaah-ed over the details. With the dogs underfoot and the children constructing a masterpiece of vintage legos, we were a rather rowdy crowd until my aunt corralled us at the table for a three-course meal in miniature.
First, scones. Not-too-sweet and nestled in a chartreuse tea towel, these scones were somewhat reminiscent of a Southern beaten biscuit but served in the proper British style with clotted cream and our choice of strawberry or four-fruit jam. “It’s traditional,” my aunt informed us, “to begin tea with scones.” English breakfast and Earl Gray (both decaffeinated) were the teas of choice, served from beautiful sliver ports with milk and generous sugar cubes or lemon if we so pleased.
After the scones came a porcelain tray of little sandwiches, the kind whose perfect alignment and lack of crusts attest to the love with which they were prepared: cucumber, ham and mayonnaise, pimento cheese, and tuna salad on white, multigrain, and gluten-free breads comprised the array. As we ate and drank we discussed the finer points of the British ritual (“low” tea is the dainty affair a la Downton Abbey under taken at a low coffee or tea table versus “high” tea, the people’s version, enjoyed at a higher table after work) and caught up on one another’s lives. Each of us kept one eye towards the baby at all times, who had taken up a momentary fascination with the most breakable elements of a proper tea party.
And then there was dessert. Rich brownies, a collection of Piccadilly biscuits from gold-lettered tin, and a beautiful bowl of whole strawberries. The entire affair made for a luscious snowy afternoon. As soon as the youngest generation had tucked away their brownies, they scampered outside to visit the horse in his pasture and fly a new remote-controlled toy plane. The adults patted full bellies in delight and tossed around Olympic-medal predictions. The china was washed and the uneaten sandwiches parceled into packages for later. Our consensus? Tea parties must not be reserved just for Valentine’s Day.
Laura Fieselman is a graduate student in the Folklore program at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-founder of Raleigh City Farm. She likes exploring the forests and rivers of North Carolina and delights in all things edible. Strawberries and fried okra top the list of her favorite foods.
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