Everything stops for tea

It appears that the ‘tea’ is making a bit of comeback, if you can judge a trend from lifestyle magazines. This is a good thing for me because I absolutely love tea sandwiches – aka party sandwiches. In the 1960s, when they weren’t hanging out the laundry or Hoovering, our mothers were setting up a card table or two for a few rounds of bridge (while sending us outside to play until at least cocktail hour). The hosting of the bridge klatches rotated between the participants. This was because the host was also responsible for refreshments, which had to include finger sandwiches, cupcakes (or squares or little cakes – the fussier the better), and of course tea.

The best thing in the entire world was being a kitchen helper when the sandwiches were being assembled. I have no idea where you would buy it today, but the classic tea sandwich starts with an unsliced loaf of white sandwich bread (the kind that is almost perfectly square), which is sliced very thinly lengthwise for the pinwheel sandwiches and crosswise for the triple-deckers. Crusts, of course, are persona non grata in tea territory.

The modern tea sandwich involves ridiculous riffs like arugula, goat cheese, pesto and artichokes. The real tea sandwich must involve egg salad, devilled ham, pimento cream cheese, and for the more adventurous, cumber and watercress. In case you were wondering, the proper technique for tea sandwich making is to put the filling on the bread then trim the crusts. That way the sandwich is perfectly turned out with no ragged edges or gaps. Luckily, I was always on hand to eat the crusts.

Lest I continue to alienate my male readers if you have made it this far, having a tea was also a participation event for my brothers. This is because of the device that lifted the sugar cubes from the sugar bowl. If you have not encountered such a thing, the sugar lifter has a closed claw that is opened by pressing down on the handle, which opens the claw to pick up the sugar cube. I am pretty sure that my mother’s sugar picker-upper was Stirling silver and likely a normal addition to any bride’s registry. But I digress. The sugar lifter also did great duty as a lunar landing module and could probably have put someone’s eye out if you tried hard enough (and clearly we weren’t trying hard enough).

The other non-heathen variation was the church tea. I think this was usually some kind of fund raiser attached to a bake sale. What I do remember is there was a long table with a designated tea-pourer at the head, who would hand a cup of tea to one of us in the church youth group to deliver to the ladies around the table. Apparently being allowed the pour the tea was very important and certainly something that Betty Draper would aspire to (but of course Carla would have made the sandwiches and cakes). I probably spilled more cups than were consumed before I got demoted to populating plates of squares. But if I was on death row, my last meal would definitely be pinwheel egg salad sandwiches with a pickle at the centre and a pot of Earl Grey tea.