High Tea, Strong Women

Dec 4, 2009 | Day Tripping, Food Adventures, U.S. Travel, Women's Empowerment

Often at Thanksgiving, our family gathers in Los Angeles: my father, his wife, my grandparents, two younger stepsisters, a teenybopper half-sister, and me. (My husband is a jeweler, so he always stays home in Denver to prepare for Black Friday.) But this year, my father is getting divorced, so Dad, my 13-year-old sister Miraya, and I ate turkey at Marie Callender’s – just the three of us, in and out in 45 awkward minutes. Then, a few days later, several of us girls recaptured a bit of family togetherness and holiday joy, at high tea.

The High Tea Cottage sits on an unassuming side street in Woodland Hills, California, a white and brick and green-trimmed house so tiny you might miss it. Outside, it reminded me of the playhouse a childhood friend used to have, a place where little girls might dress in clothes from grandma’s attic and hold a pretend tea party. At the front door an elegant hand-written sign welcomed a step-mom and three blended-family sisters: “Cindy & guests.”

Outside, The High Tea Cottage reminded me of the playhouse a childhood friend used to have.

Inside, the décor looked more grownup than that old playhouse, yet still put me in touch with the girly-girl side of myself I often ignore. I’ve had high tea before, at The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver and The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong, which both offer a classy, delicious high tea service. But this storybook cottage felt as warm and inviting as an embrace between old girlfriends.

Inside, this storybook cottage felt as warm and inviting as an embrace between old girlfriends.

We sat in one of three intimate rooms, where white shutters dribbled slender sunbeams over tables set with delicate rose china and matching fresh roses. Four faces of jumbled generations smiled across the cloth-draped table: 13, 19, 46, 55. Miraya, Carly, me, and Cindy: brought together by the aromas of teas, spices, sweets, and fresh-baked dough.

A two-tiered cart loaded with several dozen tiny jars of loose-leaf tea rolled out, pushed by a stern-looking yet friendly hostess. Later, I affectionately nicknamed her Frau Blucher – when Cindy set her teacup on a food plate, and the woman reached over and firmly moved it back to it’s proper saucer. Frau Blucher enthusiastically told us about every tea, and waited patiently as we waved jar after jar under our noses. “We had one woman in who only drinks Earl Gray,” Blucher said, to which she had replied, “Live a little!” Here-here, good Frau!

When Cindy set her teacup on a food plate, our hostess reached over and firmly moved it back to it’s proper saucer.

Each scent carried me to exotic lands, climates, and cultures. Tangy mango, warm vanilla, sweet almond. Rooibos, Oolong, Sencha. My favorite name yielded my favorite scent: Night of the Iguana Chocolate Chai. “That sounds like you,” Cindy said, and then, “That smells like you.” I marveled that a pot of tea could reflect my personality so truly. It’s casual breath of chocolate danced around the other flavors with Mexican friendliness, it’s sensual spices called up an exciting trek through Asia, and it’s mild yet penetrating black tea leaves conjured a good novel in front of a fireplace. With two sugar cubes and cream, it was the best combination of flavors I’ve ever drunk.

Each of our teas came in individual pots, chubby as piglets, wrapped in cheery cozies. The different smells wafted from each teacup to twine with our equally different personalities. Yet it all smelled and felt like harmony, as we shared each other’s triumphs and tribulations, subtly accepted our sorrows, and eagerly turned silly. Carly tried Miraya’s tea, gave a dainty downward flick of her fingertips and declared in a bad English accent, “Not my cup of tea.” We all giggled.

Carly told us about the time she fell downstairs and pulled half the house down with her, and I recalled the time Miraya was so excited to see me she accidentally somersaulted downstairs onto her head. Our two hours together made me wish I was part of a culture that revolved around teatime.

Our conversation was punctuated by yummy sounds over the three courses of our selection: “Traditional Tea Time.” The first course featured five types of tea sandwiches, cut into 10 itty-bitty triangles with the crusts cut off. I called them “aunt-sandwiches,” thanks to a character in a Stephen King book. Usually the scones are my favorite part of high tea, other than the tea. But this time I was most taken by the aunt-sandwiches, especially the cheese and apple chutney, and the chicken with cranberries and walnuts.

Our conversation was punctuated by yummy sounds over the three courses of our selection: “Traditional Tea Time.”

Our second course was cinnamon-apple scones, the flavor of the day. The High Tea Cottage doesn’t put scones into the oven until the guests order them, so they’re fresh and warm as comfort food should be. Though I’ve eaten scones even fluffier, I appreciated these more for their unique and scrumptious flavor. We also had four colorful preserves to choose from: strawberry, apricot ginger, lemon, and cherry. But I preferred my scone with nothing except sweet Devonshire cream.

I preferred my scone with nothing except sweet Devonshire cream.

My head buzzing with some 5 cups of tea and 10 lumps of sugar, I could hardly do the dessert tray justice. But we all agreed the petite treats were pretty just to look at: petit fours, tarts, artisanal chocolates, and cream puffs. Whipped cream played too large a role for my taste, but the chocolate cup and raspberry were a never-miss duet, and my petit four was a sweet, moist cloud of fairy cake.

The petite treats of the dessert tray were pretty just to look at.

I lost track of what we were laughing about. It doesn’t matter. I was just happy to share this perfect pause, in the midst of a troubling time. Although Miraya often fell quiet while I turned motor-mouth, and although Carly asked her mother if she could borrow her sweater for an “Ugly Christmas Sweater” party at college – we all hugged with genuine affection at the end. Then we went our separate ways, heads humming with caffeine, sugar, and the comforting knowledge that family is who and what we make it. Such is the healing power of tea, and the loving power of women.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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