"A cup she designates as mine
With motion of her dainty finger;
The kettle boils -- oh! drink divine,
In memory shall thy fragrance linger!"
Although indebted to England for the afternoon tea, it is a very informal affair across the water. It doubtless originated in suburban homes, where during the hunting and holiday seasons, large and merry house-parties are entertained for weeks together. Returning late from driving or field sports the tired guests require some light refreshment before making their toilets for the evening dinner. The English hostess very sensibly meets this claim upon her hospitality by serving tea and biscuit in library or drawing-room.
From this small beginning comes the American "Five O'Clock," one of the prettiest of all social functions, and still smiled upon by Dame Fashion as a favorite method of entertaining. Decorative in character, it gives opportunity to display the treasures of porcelain, glass, silver, embroidered napery and all the lovely table-appointments that everywhere delight the heart of woman. More exquisite than ever before are the little tea-tables — a succession of crescent shaped shelves, rising one above the other, two, three or four in number, as the taste inclines. Upon these, resting on cobwebs of linen or lace, are placed the priceless cups, tiny spoons, graceful caddy and all other articles necessary to the service. The silver caddy is now a thing of sentiment as well as use -- one recently bestowed as a bridal gift bearing engraved upon it this little verse:
"We sit and sip -- the time flies fast,
My cup needs filling, -- project clever!
She comes and I grown bold at last
Say 'Darling, make my tea forever!'"
In the future of married life, how sweet this reminder of the past, when all the days were golden in the light of love, youth and hope! Another couplet pretty and suggestive is found in
Amid flowers and softly shaded lights sits the gracious woman who pours the liquid gold into the fragile cups, dispensing meanwhile, smiles and the bright charming small talk that is so necessary to the success of these occasions. A wise hostess selects for this important position the most brilliant, tactful woman within her circle of friends. The menu, although by no means regulated on the English house-party plan, should consist of trifles -- sandwiches, wafers, fancy cakes, ices, and possibly a salad. Foreigners understand the value of the simple feast which makes frequent entertaining possible and a delight rather than a burden. In America the menu, decorations, etc., grow more and more elaborate from the ambition of each successive hostess to out-do her neighbor, until the economy and beauty of simplicity is irretrievably lost in the greater expense, fatigue and crush of a more pretentions function.
At the afternoon tea guests may come and go in street toilet, with or without a carriage in accordance with preference and pocketbook. However elegant the appointments and surroundings of this special function, the progresive hostess must remember that her culture will be judged by the quality of the beverage she serves. It is an age of luxury and refined taste in palate, as in other things, and tea is no longer tea, unless of a high grade and properly brewed. The woman who trusts her domestic affairs to a housekeeper, or in the event of attending to them herself, depends wholly for the excellence of an article upon the price she pays, is a very mistaken one. Without informing herself she may very naturally conclude that Russian or Caravan tea is cultivated, buds and blossoms in the land of the Czar, until later on, when her ignorance meets a downfall in some very embarrassing way.
The high-class, fancy teas of China are prepared by special manipulation and for the use of wealthy families in the Celestial Empire and are therefore never exported to other countries. Russian tea-merchants, recognizing this, send shrewd buyers across the desert into China just at the season to secure the choicest pickings for future consumption by the nobility of their own country. Of late years the "Five O'Clocks" and consequent craze for fine teas in America has tempted them to obtain a small quantity above the requirements of their titled patrons in Russia and this they export to the United States. If genuine, the name Russia or Caravan tea signifies the choicest and most expensive grade procurable the world over. It will be remembered that among the many gifts bestowed when in this country by its recent guest, Li Hung Chang, were beautifully ornamented boxes and packages of this delicately flavored and fragrant tea. The high class grades from India and Ceylon, although not as costly as the Russian, may be used by the hostess of the modern "Five O'Clock" without risk to her reputation as a woman of culture. She will consent, however,
The American hostess will regret when too late, the many advantages of the afternoon tea, alas! foolishly sacrificed upon the altar of her vanity to excel in the extravagance of hospitality. Even now experience teaches that "a tea" means anything from its original intention of informal, pleasant social intercourse with light refreshments, to the function which includes hundreds of guests, who are entertained at a banquet presenting the most expensive achievements of florist and caterer. In repudiation of this is the strict code of etiquette requiring that "an invitation be worded to indicate truthfully the exact character of the hospitality it extends. Courtesy to guests compels this, that they may be able to conform in toilet to the occasion and thus avoid the mortification of being under or over-dressed, the latter to be counted as much the greater misfortune." This from a very ancient book, it is true, but its lesson in good manners is none the less pertinent now than when written in the dead past.
It remains with the hostess, whether one shall enjoy the pleasures and privileges of the pretty Five O'Clock. Whether in the line of elegance or simplicity, the tea Russian or Ceylon, it can be dainty, well served, and lovely with flowers of sweet gracibusness and cordial welcome. These united may be depended upon to make it the social success coveted by every woman who poses as a hostess, whether in cottage or palace!
Nowhere are the artistic instincts of a modern hostess more charmingly brought to bear than in the appointments of her tea-table. To show individuality in this cosy afternoon ceremony, is an aim not difficult to reach.
The Russian table should have a cloth with insertion bands of the strong Muscovite peasant lace that is brightened by red and blue threads in the pattern; a tea caddy of niello work; and a brass samovar, of course.
Facilities for fitting out a Japanese tea-table can be found almost everywhere. The "correct" outfit consists of a low lacquered table, lotus-blossom cups -- with covers and without handles -- and a plump little teapot heated over an hibachi of glowing charcoal. It is not a Japanese custom to have the tea-table covered, but the famous embroiderers of Yokohama, having learned to cater to foreign tastes, now send out tea-cloths of the sheerest linen lawn, with the national bamboo richly worked in white linen floss above the broad hem-stitched hem. These are exquisitely dainty in appearance, but can be easily and successfully laundered -- a very important consideration.
But the quaintest of all is the Dutch table, where the sugar basin is supported over the heads of chased silver female figures; the cream jug is in the form of a silver cow, and the beguiling Jamaica shows richly dark through a Black Forest spirit bottle.
Cakes and wafers have lost favor at tea-tables. They have been replaced by little savories, which harmonize with the popular antique silver and china, by passing under their old-fashioned name of "whets;" for the afternoon tea, originally intended to be a light refreshment, had become a detriment to the dinner. Savories, on the contrary, are a whet to the appetite and clear the palate for the due appreciation of the dinner. Two or three different kinds are usually served. Anybody possessed of a little cooking knowledge can arrange a variety of them at a minimum of trouble and expense, and in their variety lies half their charm.
There are many kinds of fish, both preserved in oil and smoked, that may be used. These should be sprinkled with chopped fines herbes, placed upon thin slices of fresh bread -- from which the crust has been carefully cut -- rolled and served "en pyramide."
Toasted crumpets, heavily buttered, spread with caviar upon which a little lemon juice has been squeezed and served hot, are considered a great delicacy at English tea-tables. Another way of serving caviar is to spread it on thin bread and butter, which is then rolled up like tiny cigars. Russians declare, however, that the less done to caviar the better it will be, and to send it to the tea-table in its original jar, with an accompaniment of fresh dry toast and quartered lemon, is the fashion preferred by connoisseurs.
It takes a grand dame, so to speak, to give a tea. The vulgarian almost always overdoes it. She gets things to eat, while the woman who knows gets people, and doesn't care what they have to eat. There is nothing about a whole shop of provisions, while people who dress well, look well, talk well and behave well, make up that charming circle called Society.
The tea table may be green and white. Palms, ferns, mignonette, mosses and clusters of leaves lend themselves to the nicest effects against the whites of the table-cloth and china. If color is preferred, there are tulips and daffodils of gorgeous beauty, and good for a week's wear.
Nothing but white damask is used by gentlewomen. The woman who gives a tea never pours it. There are other things she can do to please her callers. Tea is usually served with candlelight, and to be a success need cost next to nothing, for nothing need be served that is substantial enough to dislocate the appetite for dinner. Some women serve an old fashioned beat biscuit, about the size of an English walnut, with the cup of tea. These biscuits are awfully good, but only the old mammies who have survived the War know how to make them, and there is where the old families have the advantage of the new people. Others serve brown sandwiches made of Boston brown bread and butter.
More slices of lemon than cream jugs are used. Cream is something of a nuisance, and if people don't take lemon they can take tea as Li Hung Chang does. For a guest to have a preference and emphasize it, is downright rude. To be asked to a lady's house is glory enough for any one. The grumbler can go to a restaurant and take a cup and drink it up for a dime.
Breakfasts and teas; novel suggestions for social occasions, Paul Pierce, 1907