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Monday, December 02, 2013

To Think of Tea!

Guest Blogger Dept.: Agnes Repplier was a renowned – and now unjustly neglected – essayist whose keen mind and colorful, precise prose style ensured a successful career. As a child, she quickly memorized and recited the poems her mother read to her, but resisted her mother’s efforts to teach her to read, which she did on her own at the age of ten. At 12 she was enrolled at  Eden Hall, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, just north of her native Philadelphia, but was asked not to return after two years. She was kicked out of Agnes Irwin’s West Penn Square Seminary for Young Ladies after three times because of her rebelliousness. By the time she was 20, her writing began bringing in enough money to help support her family. She died in 1950 at the age of 95. She was a lifelong smoker. The following excerpt is from her book To Think of Tea!, the finest volume ever written on the subject.


Agnes Repplier
IT IS THE MODERATE EXHILARATION induced by tea which makes it such a boon. We may, as Dr. Johnson asserts, be happy when we are drunk; but we are tolerably sure to be unhappy afterwards. The sense of contentment which follows the second cup of tea is not so irresponsible as to defy experience. It is a contentment compatible with ordinary circumstances. It does not lift us so high that the fall hurts, nor shelter us so securely that the return to noise and glare is shocking. For most of us life holds no good years, and few good days; but multitudinous good minutes if we recognize their presence. ‘Après tout c’est un monde passable.’

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.

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