1,000 Foods: Afternoon Tea

I am eating and writing my way through Mimi Sheraton’s 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die. This is the first entry on my blog documenting the odyssey, but there will be many more — judiciously spaced, of course, because at the end of the book I may be karmically obligated to drop dead. In today’s entry—the very first item in Sheraton’s first chapter on British and Irish food—I tackle that most stereotypical of British meals, “afternoon tea.”

Tea is symbolic. Where I grew up, it was served cold, so sweet it would numb your teeth. It seemed to say something essential about who we were. In the kinds of restaurants we visited, places named “Famous Amos” or “Country Kitchen” or “Tad’s,” two things were always true. First, the place would be rollicking on payday Fridays. You might mistake the dining room for a Christian Science reading room on Tuesday nights, but on Friday you’d better show up early and bring your outside voices. Second, sweet tea was the drink by default.

Sweet tea was a ritual. You’d sit down at a wooden picnic table, and a woman—always, always a woman—would emerge from the kitchen or meander over from another table to take your drink order. Each person in turn would say “sweet tea for me,” or “same here,” and moments later she would return carrying three or four enormous red plastic cups. Ice cubes would clack against the sweating plastic sides, further watering down the light brown brown substance in the cup, flavored more by sugar than tea leaves, and we loved it. We’d drink it like water, even those aunts and cousins with more sophisticated palates who took it with lemon, and it was an experience.

Tea at home was a different ritual. Everyone had an opinion about how it was best made. Mom brewed a fastidious pitcher, closely following the instructions on the side of the big generic box labeled, simply, “Tea Bags.” A consummate woman of the nineteen-eighties, she left the pitcher in the refrigerator unsweetened and kept a ceramic tray full of Sweet n’ Low packets on the counter. Dad’s tea was more anarchic. Dad would throw twenty or thirty tea bags in a pot of boiling water on the stove, turn off the heat, and let the roiling cauldron steep to a rich, tannic brown as the water cooled. Then he would transfer the mixture to a pitcher with about a cup of granulated sugar and toss it in the refrigerator tuned, always, to the lowest temperature setting. Thrilling to drink, a glass of dad’s tea would leave leave you thoroughly satisfied but somehow thirstier than you were when you started.

When I was a teenager, my relationship with tea changed along with my idea of who I might become. Beguiled by the tea section at the end of the coffee aisle, rapidly growing by the late nineteen-nineties to include such exotic offerings as chamomile and “Green Tea” (written in faux Chinese letters, dark green on a pale green field), I found myself experimenting with the kettle, adding honey instead of sugar. A friend taught me to add milk to my black tea, in the English style. We sent off for the Stash Tea catalog on the internet and when it arrived our little group of friends passed it around like a porno magazine, circling sampler collections of Oolong and Chai in Algebra II or daydreaming about fields of verbena and lavender in Language Arts. Something about Stash Tea felt emancipatory, like we were turning our backs on the sweet tea at Famous Amos or Tad’s and all it represented.

Iced tea and teenage rebellion are not what Mimi Sheraton had in mind when she included afternoon tea in 1,000 Foods. “One of life’s pleasantest indulgences,” Sheraton writes, “is afternoon tea, preferably in London, although as this cosseting meal regains popularity, it can be enjoyed in upscale hotels and romantic tearooms around the world.” Neither upscale hotel nor romantic tearoom, alas, the Famous Amos restaurant and the language arts classroom at Westside High School were nonetheless joined with these illustrious locations through the ritual symbolism of tea.

I did not know the “cosseting meal” of afternoon tea as Sheraton describes it until I was in my thirties, on my first trip to New York City. Emerging on a blustery October morning from the steaming train station onto a cold wind tunnel street in the Village, we stuffed our hands in the pockets of our lightweight southern jackets and started walking, thrilled by the simultaneous familiarity and difference that characterizes the city for outsiders. We wandered through Washington Square Park, laughing to recall all the film scenes we had watched unfold in this spot or another; I whistled and took pictures of the Blue Note; we felt real cool on Bleecker Street; and then we made our way slowly up the concrete spine of Manhattan. We stumbled upon the Flatiron Building quite by accident, holding our own camera over the heads of tourists snapping pictures of the iconic triangle for Instagram. We wandered through Times Square and walked gapemouthed through the tangle of commerce and bodies north of there until my wife pointed at a place down the street and said, “I’ve always wanted to go there.”

That was the first time I had ever heard of the Russian Tea Room.

We entered the Russian Tea Room around 3:30 in the afternoon. The shadows were already beginning to lengthen outside. Compared to the wind blowing relentlessly cold outside, the warmth in the tearoom was palpably luxurious. A waiter dressed in a rich, double-breasted jacket pulled a semicircular table away from an upholstered couch on the finely trimmed forest green wall. We took our seats and bleared around the room, a dimly lit jewel box of green and red, paintings and chandeliers. At the table across from ours, a group of young women arrayed in crinoline Victorian finery and fascinators took their tea, stopping every so often to pose for group photographs or focus their attention on one of the group’s members while she delivered a brief monologue. Unprepared by my Famous Amos background in the deep South to interpret this place and its social meanings, I gazed on the room as one peering through the looking glass.

Soon, thankfully, a waiter emerged from the kitchen with a tray of sandwiches and a pot of tea to ease the burden of interpretation. “It begins with delectable crustless sandwiches trimmed into rounds or finger shapes,” Sheraton writes of afternoon tea in 1,000 Foods. At the Russian Team Room, these sandwiches were delicate but transcendently flavorful triangles of chicken and shrimp salad, smoked salmon, artichokes and red pepper, turkey, bleu cheese. “These dainty sandwiches are mere preludes to currant-studded scones and crumpets,” Sheraton continues, “and pound cakes such as the caraway seed classic, topped with clotted cream and fruit jams and marmalades.” I cannot explain it better.

The tea, a samovar of simple but effective Darjeeling black, tied the meal together. It connected us across time and space with the afternoon tea rituals of the imperial nineteenth century, the evening traditions of the ruling class in the capital city of the American Century, and the humble tea fields in south Asia where the leaves were harvested. It also recalled the tea rituals of my own youth. It was mysterious and worldly like the Stash Teas in our high school catalog, simple and unapologetic like the sweet tea on the table at Famous Amos. Tea is ritual.