DEAR MISS MANNERS: Tea gatherings are becoming more popular, and I would like to plan a tea party. I have only attended one and would like to learn how to host a very nice experience.
GENTLE READER: Please promise Miss Manners that you are talking about an amiable afternoon social gathering and not about a contentious political movement.
Hitherto in modern American politics the invocation of tea was used without reference to the Boston Tea Party, but, on the contrary, to deplore a lack of contentiousness. If candidates attempted to debate by discussing issues in a civilized way rather than by hurling invectives, some bored commentator would always sneer, “What do they think this is, a tea party?”
And tea is steeped in tradition, as well as history. The Japanese tea ceremony, for instance …
What’s that? You just asked for a spot of tea, not a seminar?
Oh. Sorry. But Miss Manners was preparing you for the slow pace that makes tea time so soothing. This is not your gulp-’n’-go beverage.
So – no tea bags. Loose tea, steeping in a pot with another pot of hot water, so that each cup may be made to the strength desired; and with lemon slices, milk, and sugar cubes for the guests to choose among. Three courses of finger food, all laid out at once: warm breads (ideally scones, with jam and clotted cream, but buttered bread is also good), tea sandwiches (in triangles with the crusts removed) and sweets (cookies, pastries and such).
If your party is not to be large, you should do the pouring yourself, from a small table in your living room. If you are thinking of something not that cozy, the dining room table may be spread with platters of food and with thin china cups and saucers on top of little napkins and plates, and you can ask a friend or two to sit at the table’s end and do the pouring, a task that is considered an honor.
Miss Manners cautions you not to treat this as a momentous occasion. There is such a thing as a formal tea, following a wedding ceremony or to honor someone, but the charm of an ordinary tea lies in its flexibility and informality. People come and go, taking as much or little refreshment as they choose, free to make their own conversational groups.
And please do not ever refer to it as “high tea,” a phrase used by pretentious hotels innocent of the fact that its meaning is the opposite of fancy.