IN every respectable English dwelling, be it palace or cottage, tea is served between four and five o'clock every afternoon in the year. The crone in the almshouse takes hers direct from the hob in winter, and in summer hobbles with her black teapot, a teaspoonful of the precious leaves in the bottom, to the common kitchen to have it filled. Her betters in name and in worldly gear assemble about the tea equipage in drawing room or library, or in the family "parlor."
For the wealthy there are tea-tables of divers patterns, some with leaves that draw out to accommodate cups and saucers when set in array. The conventional afternoon tea-table is lower than that intended to hold bric-a-brac and books. The chair occupied by the mistress of the house or one of her daughters is low and broad, that she may sit at her ease while making and dispensing the beverage. The central figure upon the tray is a teakettle of silver, copper, brass or lacquered Japanese ware, with a spirit lamp beneath. When the water boils the tea is "masked," i. e., a little is poured upon the dry leaves in the pot, a wadded "cozy" is fitted over the latter, and the tea is "drawn" for about two minutes before the rest of the water is added.
The cups are passed by a servant if none of the young people of the family or intimate friends are present to whom the graceful task can be delegated. The tone of the whole function is easy sociability.
This is especially marked in the English country house, where sportsmen, who have been out with the dogs and gamekeeper all day, are allowed to drift into the drawing-room, in splashed gaiters and knickerbockers, for a chat and a cup of hot tea before going off to dress for dinner.
As accompaniments to the tea we have a basket of light cakes or biscuits, thin bread and butter, now and then buttered scones or "tea cake." Anything more elaborate mars the simplicity of the custom, perverting it into an "occasion." It ceases to be afternoon tea, a rest station between the one o'clock luncheon and the seven or eight o'clock dinner. In some towns and cities particularly in the lavish South the effort to introduce this simplest of social functions has failed ignominiously, because like dish-washing, toast-making and tea-making, speaking the truth and spelling correctly the right way of doing it is too easy to learn. The "spread" of oysters, salads, cakes and creams, bouillon and bonbons, flummery and fruit, into which the imported custom degenerated, was as foreign to the true spirit of the original as the crush of elaborately dressed women and the sprinkle of uncomfortable men who attended the teas was to the cordial informality that should obtain with guests and entertainers.
It is a wholesome symptom in our feverish social system that the beneficent break in the diurnal rush and press furnished by afternoon tea-time is becoming more and more prevalent. In tens of thousands of homes, in city and in country, five o'clock brings together the scattered parts of the home circle in the living-room. Jaunty wicker stands, three and four-storied, for holding plates of fancy biscuits, thin bread and butter, cake and crisp strips of lightly buttered toast spread with anchovy paste, have crept into conservative drawing-rooms; teakettle, teapot and their appurtenances appear duly at the stroke of the hour, and visitors who happen to call at that hour are cordially made welcome to the grateful refreshment. "Tea" is always there, no matter who comes or goes, and it typifies what we need more than all else besides in a land where labor is the rule and relaxation the exception; home joys, home comfort, home rest!
Five o'clock tea has come to stay! Whether as a simple refreshment for busy women who long for a life-saving station in the afternoon rush, or as an informal and inexpensive fashion of entertaining one's friends, it seems to be as firm a fixture on this side of the Atlantic as on the other.
One of the chief charms of the afternoon tea is its adaptability. It may be as much or as little of a function as one chooses. I do not refer now to the cup of tea that the hostess pours for herself or the chance friend every afternoon in the week, but to the tea where guests are regularly invited. It may be madame's At Home day, which extends over a period of a few weeks, or runs through the whole winter, or it may be one of the more formal occasions, to which guests are invited in droves, and social debts thereby paid en bloc.
For the simpler function it is easy to lay down rules. Little is required for it. If it is to be a weekly affair for which cards are issued early in the season, it is foolish to plan an elaborate menu, and even worse than foolish, for it is in bad taste. The guest who goes to such a day, "At Home," does not expect a "spread," and the hostess who offers too much makes life harder for the timid woman of small means who is not quite sure what is the correct thing, but is only positive that it must be expensive.
For the ordinary one-day-every-week-all-winter afternoon tea there are many houses where one has only bread and butter or fancy biscuits and a simple cake. I know one woman who prides herself upon the quality of the doughnuts she serves at her afternoon teas, and they are the only sweets she has beyond a little dish of bonbons. To be sure, there are simple sandwiches or thin bread and butter, but further than this she does not go except for some special occasion.
For such an Afternoon Tea the following menus are offered as suggestions:
Afternoon Tea Menu One
Afternoon Tea Menu Two
Chicken and Celery Sandwiches
These menus may be modified in many ways. Other varieties of sandwiches may be provided. Both tea and coffee, or tea and chocolate, may be offered. Plain cake may be supplied instead of the fancy cakes, and a good tea biscuit may be given instead of one kind of sandwiches. Little dishes of bonbons may stand by to supplement the feast.
For these, as for the ordinary afternoon tea where there are no invited guests, the preparations are the same. The tea-table is not to be left standing fully equipped to gather dust when it is not in use. The cups and saucers and other tea plenishings are brought in on a tray and placed on the table. This may be a regular tea-table, or it may be the table one finds in every drawing-room where are piled the magazines and books of the day. These may be swept to one side to make space for the tray. The hostess may make the tea and pour it, or it may be brought in ready from the kitchen.
When tea-time extends over the whole afternoon, a tea-ball will prove of value. Then each guest is sure of a fresh hot cup of tea, and while the alcohol lamp holds out to burn the supply will not fail.
If there are a good many guests there may be a maid at hand to pass cups and offer the plates of sandwiches and sweets. But, as a rule, the affair is so informal that hostess and guests wait on themselves.
With the cup and saucer there may be offered a plate, and some hostesses offer doilies as well, but this is not obligatory. The maid is chiefly needed to replenish the hot water, to take away empty cups and the like, and if she is within sound of the bell, it answers as well as though she were at the elbow of the hostess.
When the tea is to be a larger and more formal function, matters are differently arranged. In those cases where a hostess gives perhaps two days, and invites all her dear five hundred friends to be present at one or the other of them, there is not room in the drawing-room for the tea-table nor place for the chatty informality of the simpler afternoon tea. The table is laid in the dining-room, or the library, and a friend is invited to "pour." If there are two beverages, as there are, almost invariably, one friend takes each end of the table, and there may be even a third, presiding over another hot drink, or over the punch bowl. A waitress or two must be at hand to take away the dishes that have been used and bring fresh, and to see that the guests have enough to eat and drink. The hostess has no time to see to anything beyond the salutations of the guests as they come in, and can only suggest to them that they go out to the dining-room and find something to eat.
Once in a while, a hostess will give no more than is contained in the menus already suggested, except that the supplies of all kinds may be increased, and that there may be three kinds of sandwiches, instead of one or two, and a larger choice in the matter of cake. Two hot drinks, at least, must be supplied.
But in so large a function the bill of fare is more likely to be something like the following:
Afternoon Tea Menu Three
When an afternoon tea gets to this stage it may still be called "a tea," but it has gone far beyond that, and has become a day-time reception. Even if the sun is shining outside there is usually artificial light in the rooms. The lamps are burning with a pleasant subdued light, there are candles with colored shades, the women who are receiving and presiding over the table are in full dress. The table itself is beautiful with china and cut glass and silver. Flowers are about everywhere, and except that the men are in morning dress and the women guests in street costume, it might be an evening party.
There is a reception held in the afternoon that is even more elaborate than this. When a woman wants to make signal some special "occasion," to honor a guest, or perhaps because it is the only "crush" she gives in the year, she often makes it a tea. For this the cards will be out ten days or more in advance and the refreshments provided are more elegant and numerous than those mentioned above. Such a collation might be as follows:
Afternoon Tea Menu Four
The table is arranged for this as for the third tea mentioned, but there must be waiters in attendance, and they serve nearly everything. In most cases there is nothing done by the young women friends of the hostess who gather in the dining-room except entertain the guests and see that they have enough to eat. Once in a while, these young women may preside at the coffee-urn, or the chocolate, or teapot, but it is not a common occurrence.
The matter has been put into the hands of "the profession."
It is all very nice, and an excellent way to clear the debit side of one's social ledger, but the mind turns to the quiet afternoon tea-table with the hot tea under the cozy, the saucer of sliced lemon, the tiny flask of rum or the graceful cream jug, the sugar basin and plate of sandwiches, or bread and butter, with affection one never cherishes for the huge kettledrum.
An Afternoon Tea
Send out the invitation for an afternoon tea a week or ten days or even two weeks beforehand. Use visiting cards and below the name or in the lower left corner, the hours: 2 to 6, or any hours one chooses. On the top of the card or below the name write the name of the guest for whom the tea is given,, if it is an affair in honor of some guest.
Decorate the rooms simply or elaborately as one chooses. For a small tea simply fill the vases with flowers, and make a special feature of the tea table in the dining room. Have a center basket of flowers and ferns tied with satin ribbons on the handle, or have cut glass vases at the corners. Use lighted candles, white, or the color of your flowers, if carrying out a certain color scheme in the dining-room. Pink, red or yellow are liked for this room as they are warm, bright colors. If the tea is given in spring or summer, green and white are liked. Have candles and shades match the color scheme and place silk or satin of the color used under the mats and doilies. On the table have cut glass or fine china dishes filled with candies, chocolates, salted nuts and candied fruits. Tea may be served from one end of the table and an ice from the other. Have a friend pour tea. Place before her the small cups, saucers, spoons. She fills the cups and hands them to the guests or to those assisting in the diningroom. The cream, sugar or slices of lemon are passed by assistants. Piles of plates are on the table by the one serving ice. The ice is served into a cut glass cup and placed on the plate with a spoon. Cakes are passed; so are the bon-bons. Serve tea aqd chocolate or coffee. If one wish a more elaborate collation, pass assorted sandwiches, which are on plates on the table, or have a plate containing chicken salad on a lettuce leaf, olives and wafers. Waiters are best when the refreshments include two or three courses. The ices may be brought in or served from the table and the coffee and tea served from the table.
Ask from five to ten friends to assist in the parlors, to see that guests go to the dining-room and that strangers are introduced. Stand at the entrance or before a bank of palms in a window or corner and greet the guests. The guest or guests of honor stand with the hostess and she introduces them. A great many ladies do not wear gloves when receiving, but it is proper to wear them. It would seem that the hands would keep in better condition to shake hands with guests, if gloves were worn.
Bank the mantels with ferns and flowers and cover the lights with pretty shades of tissue paper. Use pink or green and white in the parlors and red, yellow or pink in the dining-room. Serve a fruit punch from a table covered with a white cloth and trimmed with smilax, ferns and flowers. Use a large punch bowl and glass cups. Have a square block of ice in the bowl. If a cut-glass punch bowl is used, care should be used lest the ice crack it. Temper the bowl by putting in cold water and adding a few bits of ice at a time until it is chilled. Do not put ice into a warm bowl or one that has not been thus tempered.
If there is music have a string orchestra concealed behind palms in a corner of the hall or dining-room.
Marion Harland's Complete Cook Book