The Comfort of Tea 

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the tea party

Thursday, Nov 11 2004

For the past 14 years or so, the most eccentric tea in town had to be the Annual Winter Solstice Ladies High Tea held at my friend Michele’s cramped one-bedroom Venice apartment. My first invitation to this event arrived in my mailbox back in 1991. There was a sentence at the bottom: “bring something to share that evokes the changing of the season.” I should have known better.

At 1:30 p.m. on the designated December afternoon, I pushed my way into Michele’s stranger-packed front room. High tea, by its nature, is a fairly uplifting experience: It’s after lunch, but before dinner — a miniature sandwich-and-dessert-filled bonus meal! This tea, however, seemed to have the opposite effect on some in the room. Or maybe it was me. No one I encountered during my first attempts at mingling was in a good mood. If the Havana émigré wanted to rant about the unfairness of United States economic sanctions on Cuba, she had some legitimate talking points. But why was I being held responsible? I didn’t stick around for the “sharing,” but Michele told me later that it involved sitting in a loose circle, shaking rain sticks and the hushed reading of poems.

If I grimly returned every year, it was only because I negotiated a compromise with my old friend. I’d dart in, allow myself to get verbally roughed up by a few of Michele’s guests, then stumble away after a half hour.

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A couple of years ago, though, something curious happened. I showed up and had fun. What changed? It wasn’t the systematized menu of several pots of loose English teas, sandwiches filled with egg salad or goat cheese and watercress, a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry plus scones, jams and Devon cream that Michele bought at The Tudor House in Santa Monica. Maybe it was that her new three-bedroom Mar Vista house with its big backyard and open kitchen proved a better high tea staging ground. Or was it that over time Michele had lifted the red velvet rope to welcome in young children and men? I wanted to believe that high tea had finally worked its magic and kept Michele’s more ornery visitors from coming to spoil the occasion.

Somehow, these happier gatherings inspired me to start serving tea when guests dropped over mid-afternoon. At first, the foods I laid out on my best white tablecloth resembled something closer to what you’d get at Happy Hour — a few good cheeses, soppressata and small bowls of olives and warm mixed nuts. Recently, though, I decided to expand my offerings. A friend explained that the trick to really good finger sandwiches comes down to two key components: a stick of expensive butter and a thinly cut loaf of dense bread, be it white, rye, whole wheat, brioche, pumpernickel or my favorite, La Brea Bakery’s pan de mie sandwich bread. Because of its practically crustless compact structure, it’s a breeze to cut pan de mie into perfect triangles and domino-sized bites. Historically, tea sandwiches are crustless because clean-edged sides offer guests a sneak preview of what’s inside.

For my first tea-sandwich tea, I started by tearing translucent pink slices of proscuitto di Parma into 1-inch strips, gilding the bread with a thin layer of Plugrá butter (a little more butterfat and a little less moisture than other supermarket brands), and sliding in a strip of fresh-water mozzarella. Next, I followed a recipe in Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich Book (full disclosure: she’s a close friend of mine) for Black Forest ham, Gruyère and whole grain mustard butter (butter and mustard mashed together).
In the midst of my sandwich assembly, the phone rang. It was a friend who mentioned that in Pakistan, tea sandwiches are made with chutney. That gave me an idea. In the back of my refrigerator I found a bottle of spicy Ashoka Mint and Coriander Masala paste, an impulse buy from the exotic food section at Ralphs. I carefully painted a mossy green stripe on one square of bread, butter on the other and took a bite. Pretty good!

Once you realize that you don’t need much more of a single ingredient than enough for one or two standard-sized sandwiches, everything in the kitchen beckons. A few leftover strips of peppery country bacon combined with slivers of heirloom tomato and mashed avocado became a lettuce-less version of a miniBLT. On a slim foundation of whipped cream cheese, I pressed a few threads of fresh dill and dropped some Persian cucumber turned into light green curls on my mandoline on top of the dill. My neighbor Hillary showed up at my door with a bag of Italian radicchio just picked from her garden, so I shredded a bitter leaf and sprinkled it over a bumpy band of egg salad. Rare roast beef, arugula and a little butter tasted like something you’d get in the VIP section at the Kentucky Derby.

By the time I’d run through two loaves of bread, it was about 4 o’clock. Once I read that high tea was dreamed up back in the late 1700s by the Duchess of Bedford as a culinary pit stop between an early English breakfast and traditionally late dinner. In the name of dressing up what was essentially an energizing carbo-sugar load, she insisted that the sandwiches, pâté, scones and crumpets be meticulously arranged and consumed amid lively conversation.

Well, judging from the array of platters I laid out on my coffee table, my tiny sandwiches ranged too much in size, width and height to ever score presentation points with the Duchess of Bedford crowd. But conversation? That I could compete with. I called up my husband and asked him to come home early from the office. Then, I dialed Michele’s number and invited her over.

While we rated the different flavors, I asked Michele what made her decide to throw that first high tea all those years ago. “I’d just gone through a bad breakup and I thought the season was going to be dark and depressing,” she said, finishing one of my Pakistani-style sandwiches in two bites, then reaching for the egg salad. ”I thought a ritual would help get me through that time.”

It turned out that I attended the second Annual Tea. ”The first year I only invited five people who I thought would be into reading poetry out loud. So, no, I didn't think of you, Marg.”

But how did her party, born out of such sadness, become so festive? For one thing, the eating, drinking and chatting began to eclipse the talent segment of the afternoon and, eventually, Michele eliminated it completely. But, somewhere along the way, it was my outlook that also shifted and the day became about other things. Now when I get the invitation, I think about all the furious crackpots I met at Michele's who gave me so many great anecdotes, as well as some of the faces I genuinely miss: Michele's smiling mother, Shirley, died in 1999. Earlier this year, Michele lost her friend, Pam, who'd always laugh until she shook when I'd sit next to her on the sofa and give a whispered instant replay of whatever outlandish behavior I'd just borne the brunt of. Then, I think about lasting friendship, the spirit of hospitality and the comfort that comes from things that you can count on.

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