"Tea," said the British Lancet in 1873, "has a strange influence over mood, a strainge power of changing the look of things, and changing it for the better, so that we can believe and hope and do under the influence of tea what we should otherwise give up in discouragement and despair."
If tea alone can do that, consider the restorative powers of the tea party, a meal whose virtuous excess is beloved of everone who reads the desert menu before the entrees.
We owe the existence of the afternoon tea party to "a sinking feeling " experienced by an early 19th-century Duchess of Bedford. Victim of a society given to huge breakfasts, light luncheons and late dinners, the Duchess couldn't stay the course. But her "sinking feeling" vanished when she began the practice of having tea and cakes served at 5 o'clock.
Some American hotels do still serve tea, and perhaps some do it well. I always have been disappointed by the stinginess of the spread. Two strips of sandwich and one small cake do not a high tea make.
To have a good tea party today, you have to do it yourself. The secret is excess -- an overwhelming variety of things to choose: homey foods like cinamon toast, or crumby scones or course-textured Irish soda bread, scented with caraway seeds, and served with pots of jam or, in lieu of clotted cream, lightly sweetened creme fraiche ; sweet breads like Sally Lunn, or un-iced orange, lemon or gingerbreads; pastries -- Napoleons, cream puffs, torten -- professionally iced and alluringly sweet.
And, absolutely necessary to provide the illusion that we all have enjoyed a sober and sensible meal, are the sanwiches. Finger sandwiches are the virtue preceding gluttony, light and bland so they won't interfere with the tea or with the pastries: a mild deviled ham on brown bread, wholewheat spread with chicken mousse or fish pate, white bread covered in sweet butter and layered with watercress or transparently thin cucumbers.
Have we mentioned the tea? No, since everyone has a favorite and knows to warm the pot, boil the water and steep for five minutes, then offer it with sugar, cream, lemon or honey.
Having a tea party during the week is impractical, since so many people work, but Sunday is a day to sleep late, have a large breadfast and skip lunch. By 5 o'clock, enter the Duchess' sinking feeling, and thank heaven for tea.
But just as too little food makes a mockery of a high tea, so does too many people. That's how tea parties got a bad name -- a tea drinking horde balancing cups and plates with nowhere to sit and nary a table in sight.
Afternoon tea should be a cozy and comfortable meal, limited to close friends who enjoy each other's company and need nothing stronger than tea to enhance it.