Tuesday, January 31, 2006

All That Glitz

One of my childhood hobbies was finding and saving pictures of ornate, heavy silver tea services like this one. I'd never actually seen one up close, but the ones described in stories about England dazzled me. My mom encouraged this, as it was less destructive than other hobbies of mine, like digging deep ditches in the backyard in hopes of striking oil or a vein of gold.

To the kid me, that silver tea service equaled the proverbial spoon. I knew I'd never have one; you had to be born to things like that, but I dreamed. In my fantasies, that tea service commanded almost mystical admiration and respect. You might live in a single-wide with a rusted-out Impala up on cinderblocks in the weed patch of your front yard, but if you used a silver pot to pour your Lipton, you still had Some Class.

My mother, knowing my secret daydreams, stunned me years later when she gave me a silver tea service as a wedding gift. I almost fainted when I opened the box. That first year, I used my silver tea service with the aplomb of a New Wife With Some Class. I invited my girlfriends over for an English high tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off and crumpets and real butter and cream. I poured for everyone, just like the wonderful English ladies in the books I'd read.

The girlfriends were a little mystified by the cucumber sandwiches ("You put butter on them?") and one compared crumpets to naked Egg McMuffins, but they seemed suitably impressed. They came for another tea or two, but then they made excuses not to. Tea was okay, but it was more their speed to go shoot pool and drink beer down at the local watering hole, and why didn't I come with them?

I resisted the dubious charms of the tavern and the cue, because I had Some Class. I started going to tea shops and tea rooms to ooooh over the expensive stuff, sit by myself and watch the lovely ladies of the silver tea service. I felt in awe of those finely dressed, elegant, obviously wealthy women, who demonstrated their exquisite manners, and engaged in small talk. Often they wore gloves -- real, white ones with pearl buttons at the wrist -- like little girls do at Easter for church. They never appeared agitated or angry or even mildly steamed. Their small gestures seemed as smooth and slow as if they were underwater.

I was never invited to join any of their teas (a few called me over now and then, thinking I was the waitress) but oh, how I wished I could. To be a part of those refined circles instead of eavesdropping on them. To have a reason to produce languid gestures and serene smiles. To know what they knew: the confidence only wealth, acceptance and respect bestows. So maybe eight-ball was a lot more fun; I told myself that was single-wide mentality. I could learn plenty from those tea room ladies. They had So Much Class, and it was all so pretty.

At home, I had to hand wash my silver service, naturally, and polish it weekly to prevent tarnish from marring it. Some Class required a lot of upkeep. Every person who came into my home had to be artfully guided by the hutch to see it. I never bragged, because the very presence of the silver service whispered for me: Hey, Baby, She's Got It.

The second year some odd little dark spots appeared on the bottom of my silver tea pot, spots that no amount of attention and care could remove. In fact, polishing made them bigger. Concerned, I mentioned this to the British lady who owned the most expensive tea room in town.

"If it's American made," she told me, "the silver plating is probably worn thin." She recommended a product that restored the look of silver to tarnished, cheap sets like mine.

I went home feeling a bit tarnished myself. Thin. Cheap. The look of silver. Silly that I hadn't ever realized my set wasn't the real deal, but I knew nothing about silver. That my mother couldn't have afforded to buy anything but silver plate had never registered.

Not Classy. Single-wide pitiful, really. And not my silver-plated service, either -- me. I'd assumed I had what I would likely never possess. I'd tried to go where I would never fit in. I'd been a tea room groupie, longing for acceptance and respect from women who mistook me for the help. I knew nothing about tea except what I'd read in books, and I'd probably gotten half of that wrong, too.

A very unpleasant lesson, served up on a silver-plated platter.

I might have saved up for a solid silver service (back then it would have only taken me seven or eight years) but the glitz was gone. After that I still used the service, but not to impress my friends. I used it for every day, ordinary teas. I stopped hanging out to silently gawk at the lovely ladies of the tea rooms. When I had tea, it was only for me, to be enjoyed while I read a good book, or listened to some music, or watched the rain fall.

The little teas I made for myself remained a habit. Over time I became more daring and, like an armchair voyager to unknown countries, I started trying out new teas. I sampled imported tea from England, and China, and India. I found real Irish black tea has ten times the wallop of Starbuck's coffee. I discovered delicate white teas, exotic flavored teas, and a few unhappy revelations, such as the Earl Grey tea so favored by Her Majesty tasted as if I were drinking perfume.

Despite my care (and I never stopped caring for it, even after the glitz had nearly worn away) the silver set slowly corroded over the years. Finally a weld broke on the teapot and it began to leak. I donated the usable pieces to a thrift shop and let my crafty neighbor turn the leaky pot into a "shabby chic" planter. I went out and bought a replacement service; an inexpensive but attractive set in stoneware to match my every day dishes. Dishwasher safe, durable, and not so much as a fleck of glitz. It kept my tea hot and looked nice on the table, which was all that mattered.

The girlfriends who dropped by my house weren't especially dazzled by my humble stoneware, but it didn't scare them off to the pool-hall, either. They giggled over my tales of Around the World in 80 Teas, and tested baking experiments, like my versions of Dundee cake, and tart cherry-vanilla scones, and Brazo de Gitano. We swapped stories and recipes and laughed a lot.

Tea is a daily part of my life now. This morning I drank my breakfast brew from a big mug with a Charles Wysocki cats-and-books design. Tonight I'm brewing a pot of green tea to drink from tiny cups like these before we go to bed. Both the mug and the tea cups are precious to me, not for their monetary value, but because they were gifts from friends.

As for the glitz, well, I no longer covet things that require endless polishing, or the wearing of white gloves, or the cutting off of crusts. Like so many things in my life, it's what I love that's important, not how impressive it looks, and the people who share it with me, not the ones who never will.


  1. Wow, what a lovely post. I think I'm in the mood to drag out my porcelain teapot and English china mugs. Reading this made me think of someone I know who does the tea room thing. She's not happy, but she wants the acceptance I think. I don't think I ever really thought about why until reading this. Thanks.

  2. I loved this posting's evocative writing & its message. I stopped waiting for Presidential-level company to bring out my "good" china too. ;o)

  3. Anonymous4:21 AM

    Ah, tea and Dundee Cake - you bring back happy memories of my Anglo-Scottish childhood.

    For those with an imagination which exceeds their environment, the off-the-peg identity has great seductive powers.

  4. Bah. Proper tea is served in glass mugs in greasy spoons.


  5. That was a lovely story. *g* I can think of several things that have changed their meaning in my life, they have remained as part of a ritual of some sort. I guess that's what growing up is all about, eh?

  6. Wonderful post, PBW. I sort of did the same thing with college. It was both a way to escape and prove myself worthy. I got the BS in Mathematics instead of English as I would have loved, struggling through equations everyday when I would have rather read, anything, even Moby Dick. *g* But the BS wasn't enough, so I went to graduate school. A masters wasn't enough either. And that's the important lesson, I think--it's never enough, is it, when you don't accept who and what you are. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of the degrees and the job I was able to get (which I do enjoy even though it's not writing), but that's not the sum of "who I am" any longer.

  7. Anonymous9:32 AM

    I sometimes think America would be a much more civilized country if we stopped for tea and cookies every afternoon like the British do.

    My teapot is the second-cheapest one I could find at the grocery store, and I got the mug for free as a corporate giveaway. But the tea itself is first rate. I like it, it doesn't scare my friends, and I don't have a heart attack if the cats knock it over.

    I think there's a silver tea service in the family that I'll inherit one day. Funny thing is, I've never seen my mother use it, either.

  8. I wish I could learn to like tea. I could not stand the black tea when I tried it. Maybe I didn't do it right. Hubby forces green tea down me every time I'm really sick.

    I love those tea sets though. And I love the look of those boxes of teas and the way some smell. Maybe it is the silver tea set all over again...

    Or maybe whatever makes you feel good inside is what really counts.

    Wonderful post!

  9. I'm a confirmed tea drinker and never developed a liking for coffee. The morning drink is something in the "black" tea line like good old Liptons or English or Irish breakfast tea. In recent months, I've started drinking more green tea. I've heard it brings many health benefits and is good for people trying to lose weight.

    For me, there's a certain relaxing ritual to brewing a cup of tea and then sipping it -- whether in a tea room or alone. It doesn't matter whether it's served in fine china or a Baseball Hall of Fame mug. The pleasure is in the tea itself.

    PBW, even the really good silver tea sets can corrode over time.

  10. I've just recently gotten back to tea. My favorite so far is Red Rose :)

  11. Anonymous12:45 PM

    What a lovely lady, you are. And a classy one too.

    Lurker Karen

  12. Wonderful lesson. Thanks for sharing. I try to go to high tea at least a few times a year. I love the experience. It reminds me of the 'fabled' gentler times. That said, I have no illusion of fitting in. I AM the proverbial bull in a china shop.

  13. Lovely story, Sheila. But remember, class isn't about having money. It's about how you behave. And you're one classy lady, in my book. :)

    There's a tea shop about 2 miles from my home. I keep meaning to ask a friend of mine if she'd like to go, just because I've never done the English tea thing. I'd drink hot chocolate, though, because I don't like tea. lol

    I keep going in there looking for a teapot that isn't frilly feminine with lots of flowers for making tea the English way. I want to buy one for my hubby, who learned to make proper tea from his British mom. He misses his tea. Maybe as a housewarming gift when we finally move back out of here. :)


  14. Anonymous3:40 PM

    PBW: I live in England, and silver (especially silver tea services which no one has time to polish anymore) has recently plummetted in value. You can pick up a solid silver teaset dating from around the turn of the century at an auction these days for about £80 ($120 perhaps?). And if you got tired of it, you could probably flog it over there in the US for five times the price. Come on over and visit!

  15. I don't drink a lot of tea, no matter how many anti-oxidants it has in it. But when I do, I have the teapots: a Chinese, hand painted one, a hand potted tea set, and... the black and gold trimmed Noritake which is breathtaking.

    Tea drinking isn't about what you put the stuff in, it's the ritual, like fishing isn't about the fish, but the relaxation.

    Oh, and Earl Grey? Icky to drink, but makes a wonderful sorbet.

  16. Anonymous9:25 PM

    I'm a hard core coffee girl, so instead of the beloved Tea Ritual, I have the espresso machine ritual.

    Tea fascinates me with the range of flavors but invariably what I wind up with in my cup is musty, flavorless stale hot water and a sense of "I don't get the fanatic appeal. I'll go make a nice frothy latte with a splash of caramel, spice or vanilla syrup."

  17. Anonymous9:26 PM

    erm. that was me anonymously, nico.

  18. Another tea fan here, though without a silver tea set. :-)

    Fortunately, I can get a lot of different teas because it's a tradition in northern Germany thanks to the harbour towns like Hamburg and Bremen. One way to drink it is to put a chunk of candied sugar in the cup, add the tea, and then, very carefully and with a special spoon, the cream. Don't stir. That one works best for strong Assams.

    I like Darjeelings best, autumnal flush and green; plantation teas that are so expensive I get 125g for Christmas every year because I can't afford it myself. *grin* I drink these pure, no sugar or cream. And for daily tea time, I drink cheaper ones, Darjeeling blends, Assam or Chinese tea. With cucumber sandwiches. And never Earl Grey. *shudder*

    Sheila, here's a little Shiny for you. :-)

  19. Wonderfully written and wise. Thank you for sharing.


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