Poetry & Sentiment: How to Serve Tea

Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.
Henry Fielding, “Love in Several Masques”

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Let’s face it – how often are the young women of today expected to preside over a tea?

Well at the ripe age of 26, I’ve presided over three, and the first one was terrifying because no one had ever taught me how. It’s the sort of thing that you may never be called upon to do or attend, but when you are, it can be scary.

My grandmother died when I was a child, and my grandfather did not marry the woman I consider my grandmother until my first year in college. It was she who took it upon herself to teach me (thankfully) how to attend and preside over a tea when it became readily apparent that I had no idea what I was doing.

My second was the morning I was married and was also my grandmother’s idea, but I was ready this time. All the women in my family gathered together for a bridesmaid’s tea, and it was wonderful.

The third was a last-minute job due to work – when it became readily apparent that, although an afternoon tea had been scheduled for a visiting guest artist, no one had any idea how to proceed. (It didn’t help that the staff had been told “low tea” while the attendees had been told “high tea.” I was the one who discovered this discrepancy, pointed out offhandedly that the terms were not in fact interchangeable, and was suddenly thrust to the forefront of the event as the tea expert about six hours prior.) Needless to say, I stood in that kitchen as two dozen society women filed in and silently thanked my lucky stars for my grandmother’s influence.

Much like attending the Opera, there are a few conventions that make tea service intimidating, but not particularly hard.

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Tea as an Event

High Tea

Boy, have I ever seen a lot of unknowing women call something “high tea” just to make it sound fancier, then be at a loss for words when a bunch of angry people show up expecting more than mini scones.

It’s called “high tea” because it’s served on a high table, like your dining room table, as opposed to the low tables of a parlor. And it’s served on a high table because there’s a real meal involved. High tea is traditionally composed of real food, not just light fare – instead of your little tea sandwiches, you’d find actual meat like chicken or rabbit, mashed potatoes, eggs, cheese, and crusty hunks of bread. High tea was served as the meal of the working class and therefore resembles the “afternoon” or “low” teas of the luxury class very little. Ladies who lunch certainly never threw “high teas.”

Low or Afternoon Tea

Low tea is probably the ceremony you’re thinking of when you think tea – silver teapots, doilies, perfectly sliced little sandwiches. “Low” refers to the height of the tables in the sitting room or parlor, which, as you can imagine, are not particularly helpful to eat at. In fact, these tables are really just meant for holding your tea cup should you need to set it down and the plates of food items once they’ve been passed – the table itself is not meant to be “eaten at” the way a dining room table is. The eating happens from a plate in your napkin-draped lap, which, as you can imagine, can be awkward.

Low tea is traditionally served around 3:00 or 4:00pm, and is meant as a “pick me up” between lunch and dinner. Because of this, and the awkward seating arrangements, low tea foods must be small enough to be eaten with three fingers – hence things like scones and tea sandwiches.

Now, that being said, not many young women these days are lucky enough to have a parlor or drawing room separate from their dining or living areas. If you want to have “low tea” at your dining room table, you go ahead and do it, girl. (Like my Daddy always said, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.”)

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The Tea Essentials

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about the bare minimum you need to have on hand to serve tea (at any height).

Tea pot – this can be just your kettle, if you’re being casual, or a tea service, if you’re being fancy. What’s the difference between a tea pot and a tea kettle? A kettle is what you boil the water in on the stove, and is usually made of metal. A tea pot, on the other hand, is what you pour that hot water you just boiled into to brew the tea. Tea pots usually aren’t meant to be heated and cooled like a tea kettle, although they can be made of everything from porcelain to stone to glass.

What’s a tea service? Well, a standard tea set (informal) contains the teapot, cup and saucer, sugar bowl, and creamer. A formal tea service (such a silver tea service) includes all of the above, plus a coffee pot, kettle, tray, and a bowl for disposing of your spent tea bags, etc.

A tea service doesn’t include your cutlery – see below.

Teaspoons – for stirring in sugar and milk.

A sugar spoon or, if you’re using cubes like I like to do, sugar tongs.

Enough cloth napkins to go around. How big should tea napkins be? Typically, they’re 14″ square, although you can also use a luncheon napkin, which is 18″ square. Do yours have to have fancy lace? Not at all. If you’re not a fancy lace kind of girl, screw it.

Since you’re screwing it, why not just use paper napkins? Well, you could, but like I said, tea service and seating can potentially be awkward. A cup of tea sloshed into a woman’s lap is going to go straight through a paper napkin; with cloth, her dress at least stands a chance of surviving.

Dessert plates and forks for serving your goodies.

Sugar cubes, milk, and lemon slices (not wedges). Because lemon slices are thinner and trickier to handle, you might provide one of those tiny forks for just this manuever.

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Choosing Your Food

Traditionally, tea should be served with food, and like good wine, the two should complement one another. And I’m from the South, so that goes double – anytime anyone is over at my house, there needs to be food. Hell, there needs to be food wherever I am at all times. Here are some tried and true items:

Savory items are served first:

  • Mini-quiches – I have never successfully made quiche, but I can pop those store-bought suckers in the oven like a pro.
  • Radish-Chive Tea Sandwiches – Lily Beth loves her some radishes. So much better than cucumber. The only thing cucumbers are good for, in my eyes, is making pickles.
  • Mini Mushroom Feta Turnovers – mmmm. Feta.

Next comes bread:

  • Mini Vanilla Scones from Starbucks – Although I am not a fan of Starbucks in general (support your local coffee shop, damn it!), on more than one occasion I have picked up a little box of these babies on the way home. They make excellent finger foods.
  • Cranberry Orange Scones – Ina Garten is really my go-to girl for teas. You can make them from scratch, or just buy some scone mix at your local grocery and test it out.
  • Clotted cream – a must for scones. If you’ve never had it, you’re missing something wonderful. (Trust me on this.) Stef over at Cupcake Project shows you just how easy it is to make yourself.

And finally, dessert:

  • Cake – Delia offers about twenty solid options.
  • Chocolate dipped strawberries – a note on getting your chocolate to harden properly: when I was a child, my mother would make tons and tons of Christmas candy. It would cover every surface of the kitchen and dining room. And to get her wax to thin and harden properly, she’d throw in a chunk of paraffin wax. Later, when I was married with a kitchen of my own, my husband remarked upon this in horror one Christmas as he watched me chop off a chunk of canning wax into the chocolate. I’d never though a thing about it, but the obvious smacked me in the face – eating wax can’t be good for you. Try vegetable shortening or couverture chocolate instead.
  • Lemon tarts – courtesy of the Unsinkable Paula Deen.
  • Chocolate truffles from your local chocolatier; another easy no-bake option.
  • Diana’s petit fours are delicious if you have the time, and have been a staple of mine for years.

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The actual serving of tea

First off, find yourself a good tray or pre-set all your items. Trays aren’t pretentious; they’re functional – it’s how you’re going to carry the tea pot and accoutrements from the kitchen without making multiple trips.

Warm up your tea pot before you brew – you can place it in the oven on low (USE THOSE OVEN MITTS!) or warm in boiling water. This is going to keep your tea warm longer when you brew it.

For brewing the tea, you have a couple of options:

  1. You can use loose tea, which I do, because I like to buy local. Often times, loose teas are fresher – tea is like spice; that box of Lipton tea bags that have been in the back of your pantry since that cold you got in college isn’t going to cut it. If you’re using loose tea, you’ll need an infuser or a filter on your tea pot.
  2. Serve your tea in bags and let each guest pick their poison out of a nice box or tray. In this case, your tea pot only needs to be filled with hot water; guests will add their own tea bags via their individual cups.

Your water should be fresh, cold, and non-distilled before boiling.

For serving the tea:

  • When placed on the table, the tea pot spout goes toward the hostess. (Yes, this is counter-intuitive.)
  • The hostess or a deputy always pours. (As you can imagine, trying to pass a hot tea pot around is next to impossible.) Some say you should deputize a close and trusted friend (well, okay, it’s hot water, not espionage) to do the pouring so you can be free to be boiling more water, greeting guests, etc. I say do what you like.
  • To pour, use one hand to hold the handle of the tea pot, and the other placed gently on the lid. Don’t overfill the tea cup; keep an eye on it when you pour.
  • A note on seating and pouring: your most distinguished guest is usually seated on the right of the hostess, in all situations. You’re probably not having Michelle Obama to tea, but this seat can be reserved for your grandmother or mother (who should always takes precedent over your mother-in-law) or a visiting guest (such as if the tea is being held in someone’s honor or is accompanied by a lecture). Thus, you start pouring on your right, to your most distinguished guest first, then to the next-most distinguished guest on your left. (If you get stuck, just go roughly by age, oldest to youngest.) For example, at my wedding tea, my grandmother was seated on my right, and I served her first. My mother was seated on my left, and then I served her next, then on down the line – aunts, older friends, and my bridesmaids in their 20s, and finally my younger cousins.
  • If you only have a few girlfriends gathered around, you may be able to pour comfortably from your seat. (Whenever it’s just us girls, everyone cloisters around the kitchen anyway, so they always end up doing their own pouring.) If it’s a more formal affair, you may have to stand and go around the room – be focused. Watch where you walk, especially if you’re serving tea in a home that’s not yours (many an unforeseen rug has almost done me in). Stand to the right of each woman when you pour, unless the seating arrangement doesn’t allow you to. (Safety comes before etiquette.) Don’t try to carry on conversation the first few times you pour.

For actually drinking your own tea:

  • A lady doesn’t clank her tea spoon around in her cup like she’s beating eggs; a lady gently folds her tea towards her.
  • When done, the spoon goes on the right side of your saucer.
  • There is a proper way to hold a tea cup, and it’s not to be snobby, it’s to keep you from dumping it in your lap. If the cup is a clock, your thumb goes at six and your index finger at twelve. When I do this, my pinky naturally extends for balance; yours probably will too, but don’t make a show of it.
  • You don’t lift the saucer and tea cup at the same time – the tea cup gets lifted, and then set back on the saucer between sips.

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And now, some questions:

What type of tea pot should I get?

Well, like I said, tea pots run the gamut of materials.

Glass has become popular with the minimalist and hipster masses alike, and indeed, it has it’s advantages – it doesn’t change the flavor of tea, and it’s light. It’s also pretty, because it lets you see the color of the tea. I’ve owned a couple of glass tea pots, however, and I’m a klutz -glass heats quickly, and I always end up burning the holy Jesus out of my hand.

Silver is a more upscale option, and it definitely echos your grandmother’s teas of yore with its Victorian grace. They’re a bitch to clean, though, because they tarnish. Likewise, they can be heavy. If you do decide on a silver tea pot (or anything silver, for that matter), try this for easy cleaning: place a sheet of aluminum foil in your sink, and add 2-3 inches of boiling water, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1 teaspoon salt. Add your silver, and let stand a minute or two. Remove with tongs or hot pads for bigger pieces, rinse, then dry off and buff with a soft cloth. Works like a charm with minimal elbow grease.

Stainless steel is durable, and, if you’re like me, can stand being banged around a bit. It can be shaped into some beautiful teapots, and retains heat well, but it can be rather modern and stark looking.

Porcelain or ceramic can be a more inviting look for your tea pot. They often come in patterns or designs, and they also don’t absorb flavor, which makes them great for tasting different types of tea.

Clay teapots are a traditional staple of the Chinese and Japanese alike. This is because these people are serious about their tea drinking; they are downright reverent. (And why shouldn’t they be? Tea’s healing properties have been hailed for centuries.) Much like a good seasoned cast-iron skillet, a clay teapots are used to brew different types of tea (usually darker ones), and since they absorb flavor, produce richer teas over time. Because of this, several clay pots are often used and kept separate for brewing specific types of tea.

A note on choosing your tea pot: if you can’t lift it easily in the store, you can’t lift it when it’s filled with tea. Also, how does the lid stay on – does it rattle? Likewise, is it difficult to get off? A good lid will be secure but not difficult to remove. And don’t neglect the spout – check that sucker out like you’d check out a new car. Do the spout and the handle line up? Take a look down the spout; it should be smooth. If it’s rough or looks uneven, it’s poorly made, and your tea will careen out of like a roller coaster.

Do I really need both saucers and small plates?

Well… kind of. In a word, yes. But don’t let this discourage you from saying “fuck it all” and serving your girlfriends some spanky fancy tea out of coffee mugs, okay? Be your own person – of all the things that can restrict your lifestyle choices, tea shouldn’t be one.

However, if you’re here, it’s probably because you’re interested in the proper way to serve tea, which means saucers.

See, saucers aren’t plates. Unlike a plate, which is meant to hold food, a saucer is meant specifically to support its cup; that’s what the indention is for. This isn’t going to do jack if you have a seizure while holding your tea cup, but it is going to help with the gentle every-day jostling you might encounter. It’s also used to protect the table (or your lap) from overflow, and functions a lot like a portable coaster. It’s also handy to hold your used (and wet) spoon.

Do all my tea cups and napkins have to match?

The fanciest woman I’ve ever met, in the nicest house I’ve ever been in, used unmatched tea cups and napkins. They’d come mixed and matched from various inherited sets, all more than a hundred years old. Everyone was charmed, and furthermore, no one had any trouble finding which tea cup was theirs. Do what you want – if you like things to match, then by all means, be matchy. If you’d rather buy a tea cup at a time, through estate sales, the Internet, antique stores, what have you, then more power to you.

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Some of Lily Beth’s Favorite Teas

We are serious about our tea in the South, y’all – we don’t fuck around. (We’re strangely British that way.) Like our booze, life is too short to drink things you don’t like.

Adagio is a great way to try out a million different teas. My current obsession is green gunpowder tea, which has a nice bitter zing to it; try Moroccan mint, which is traditionally gunpowder tea and mint.

Harney and Sons is also a decent source with adorable tins; try their wedding tea.

And of course, Tea Forte does give a charming presentation; not only does it look cute at a tea party, but it also makes a great addition to that “guest basket” of goodies in the spare bedroom.

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Jack and Lily Beth’s Bastardized Tea

Mama always said you have to know the rules before you can break ’em. The way Jack and I love to throw a “tea” is really more like throwing a brunch, and is a complete bastardization that I’m sure the British and Japanese would be aghast at. But for Jack and I, brunch includes alcohol and tea does not. (This is useful because we have more than one friend – and we bet you do too, even if you don’t talk about it – who’s come out of alcohol rehab and it’s just not polite to toss alcohol at an alcoholic at 10:00am. Or maybe you have that one cranky aunt who’s a teetotaler. Who knows.)

Besides, when you’re just among friends (and not high society ladies), make up your own damn rules. To us, non-alcoholic brunch served in late morning is focused around tea.

We like to lay out a traditional Southern spread on the dining room table – biscuits, cheddar grits, bacon, beer fried okra, cornbread, chicken hash, cheeses, etc. (Nothing enough to make a formal meal, you see, but moreso food that people can wander by a eat handfuls or small platefuls at a time.)

Then, we arrange parlor seating in a traditional low tea style – lots of groupings of chairs and low tables. The door onto the porch is opened to let people eat outside, or wander back and forth.

At this, we serve different types of hot tea, as well as iced tea. (Lots and lots of iced tea.) We put old fashioned records in the stereo – The Definitive Cannonball Adderly is a favorite – and people literally just wander through the three rooms grazing conversation as much as they graze food. People come and go, leave and come back, it’s always a great cross section of people and a good flow. It’s hands down one of our favorite things to do.

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