How does one even think of an afternoon tea party during the dog days of Summer in Charleston? Creatively, with new eyes!
One of the Dean’s favorite men, a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Rogers, organizes a week long camp for his grandchildren. His camp includes a range of lessons and activities from tennis, sailing, art history, and even how to flip an omelette, which he teaches himself. He recruits all kinds of teachers for his grandchildren's summer visits. This year he asked the Charleston Academy to teach a tea party class to two smart granddaughters, aged nine and twelve.
First order of business, and perhaps why the Academy of Domestic Pursuits is more fun than any other school in the country, was getting Granddad situated, satisfied, amused, and interested in tea parties. The Dean had her two charges learning how to make an Old Fashioned cocktail for their grandfather while the Granddad sat spellbound. Two young girls learning bartender tips! Why not? The Dean learned how to make an extraordinary Old Fashioned from FIG’s very hip bartender, Andrew King. Tricks Andrew uses include not one but two cocktail glasses, two different kinds of ice, and stirring for 35 seconds. (Disclaimer: of course the Dean explained to the girls that this was an adult drink made of brown liquor they would no doubt find repulsive.)
Next up, three "mocktails" sans rye: soda water, a dash of peach bitters, balloon ice, and a garnish of orange slices plus Luxardo cherries stabbed with a toothpick. Once armed and ready to tackle the tea tasks that lay ahead, the girls reviewed and thankfully approved the menu of cream scones and cucumber tea sandwiches.
For the cream scones, the girls had to decide on two important issues. Yellow raisins or none? Triangles or round? Even though the Dean called the raisins ‘golden’ instead of yellow, both girls shook their heads to say no raisins of any color. The shape choice was easier, although one chose round and the other, triangles. Then the fine arts of measuring, mixing, rolling and cutting; these sisters came well-versed in many baking techniques. One has already invented a recipe involving a marshmallow injected with colored frosting to get her school friends sugared up at birthday parties.
Scones in the oven, cucumbers out of fridge! But before tea sandwiches, one essential truth: when you are making a simple recipe, each ingredient needs to be of the very best quality because you cannot hide taste. In this case, the bread, butter, salt, and even the cucumber need to be super delicious. Nothing got past the older sister; she said she tastes the difference between the butters her mom buys. But luckily both could vouch Pepperidge Farm which sells very thin white and wheat breads. The company must have started in the tea sandwich business, so perfect are those breads for that purpose.
A tip: ensure the bread does not get too soggy by placing paper-thin disks of cucumber on a paper towel and sprinkling lightly with salt. Allow them to weep gently into the paper towel while you butter the bread and trim the crusts. After a good cry, the cucumbers will not slime up your sandwiches and the delicate cucumber flavor is intensified.
Scones out of the oven -- a lesson in using an oven mitt and rack! The girls set a table on their grandparent’s screened porch, arranged scones on one platter and sandwiches on another, then filled ice buckets with ice cubes. The hot weather problem was brilliantly solved by these two young ladies. Instead of hot tea, they decided that we would enjoy ice cold water from their their grandmothers porcelain tea cups.
Even the Dean was amazed how a pile of scones disappeared before teatime was half over. Each girl filled her tiny stomach with at least a dozen scones first, then cucumber sandwiches while sipping ice water, pinkies raised. The party discussed the weighty matters of birthday parties -- invitations, venues, and what to do about hurt feelings when you are left off of the guestlist.
If your tea party is at any other time of the year than July or August, or indoors with the air conditioner working overtime, then you should know that the tea we take at the Academy comes from the UK: Resolution Tea from Botham’s of Whitby. In fact, we are addicted. Yes, overseas postage nowadays tends to make one’s eyes water. But we did the math and six boxes of one hundred tea bags plus shipping comes to less than nineteen cents per bag -- well worth it for such an enduring and enjoyable tradition.