We cannot think that tea gives to Americans what it gives to the English. It is not our affinity any more than a cocktail is theirs. The American genius ran to mixed drinks, and achieved marvellous results. The rapture of Dickens over his first sherry cobbler blotted temporarily from his mind his distaste for all things else American. Today, England, France, Italy and Spain offer to tourists an assortment of mixed drinks, their names startlingly familiar, their qualities unrecognizable. But never since the Revolution have we returned heartily to tea. When proffered in the afternoon, it is nervously rejected as prejudicial to sleep, or drunk so weak as to be truly ‘slop-kettle.’
Innumerable ‘Tea-Rooms’ dot the New England coast, charming little cottages with surroundings as beautiful as land and sea can make them. They are filled with women eating ices, drinking sugary liquids, cold and delicately coloured, or buying the kind of merchandise which is accurately labelled ‘Gifts,’ and which no purchaser wants to keep, or means to keep, for herself.
So profitable has this ‘Tea-Room’ business grown to be that periodicals devoted to feminine interests give a great deal of space to it, and offer a great deal of counsel concerning it. Reading these carefully considered instructions, we become aware that the only thing which doesn’t count in a tea-room is tea. The ‘setting’ is all important. The colour scheme of curtains and tables and the artistic arrangement of the ‘gifts’ lead up to such triumphs as jade and ivory sandwiches,’ filled with alligator pear and cream cheese; or ‘mystery sandwiches,’ the contents of which are to be guessed at in the interests of conversation.
It is safe to say that a combination of caviar, tuna fish, canned shrimps, mayonnaise, whipped cream and lemon juice might puzzle anyone who survived the eating of it. A whole page, several columns wide, about tea-rooms holds never a word about tea, save and except the satanic suggestion to put a piece of preserved ginger, or a couple of cloves, into the tea-pot.
In my own city there has flourished for years an establishment designated as ‘Tea-Rooms,’ with a prefix suggesting a particularly pleasant type of hospitality. Thither I repaired with a friend and demanded tea, to be told by an attendant that they did not serve it.
‘But why,’ I asked – reasonably, it seemed to me – ‘do you call yourself a tea-room, if you don’t serve tea?’
The woman looked at me with a sort of patient exasperation, as if I had asked why her own name was Mary, or Ellen, or Emmeline, when there was no earthly reason why it shouldn’t be. That the words ‘Tea-Room’ implied any obligation to serve tea had evidently never occurred to her. ‘Of course you can order tea or coffee with your dinner,’ she said soothingly.
‘Dinner!’ I echoed. ‘It is just five o’clock. I don’t want dinner. I want tea.’
To which the long-suffering waitress – her patience mastered by exasperation – replied conclusively, ‘We are serving dinner now,’ and dismissed me.
– Agnes Repplier, To Think of Tea!, Houghton Mifflin, 1932.