If asked to name my favorite things, afternoon tea is right at the top of my list. I have loved it since my beloved great aunt Lois served her famous tea biscuits (they were never called scones—not sure why) and slices of Kraft cheddar cheese when I was little, to one of my birthday parties where my mom made petit fours and we drank hot cocoa out of beautiful cups and saucers, to all the glorious places in England, Ireland and America where Dr Marry, Quinn and I have spent afternoons drinking tea and eating finger sandwiches, scones and miniature, exquisitely decorated desserts, to making it at home served on my great, great grandma’s delicate china. One of my true delights is that Quinn loves afternoon tea and the rituals around it as much as I do. Dr Marry doesn’t love it as much, but he’s incredibly indulgent about taking me for tea multiple times when we travel.
I love the slowing down of time that comes from this experience. To properly enjoy a true afternoon tea, you can’t rush into a place and gulp down a mug of tea. Instead, you carefully consider your tea leaf options. You sit while the pot steeps and then you begin the process of creating the perfect cup—maybe black, a splash of milk, a cube or spoonful of sugar, perhaps lemon. The seeming fragility of a china cup and saucer lends itself to a more careful, intentional period of time spent over it as well.
My favorite tea rooms have live music playing. To sit and watch a pianist play for my pure pleasure is a true joy and entirely different from a concert. Bettys Tea Room in York and The Pump Room in Bath both had wonderful musicians who played music across the musical periods that, coupled with the architecture of the rooms, only added to the overall sensory experience.
The finger sandwiches—so varied in taste, texture, content, even shape—are a lovely starting point. Fruited scones, with clotted cream and jam—don’t even get me started! And finally those tiny desserts. Often, a glass of Champagne is also an option. Taken as a whole, what in the world is not to love about this experience?
I find a tea room to be one of the only other places, besides libraries, where I actively lower the volume of my voice. Not only does the whole environment encourage decorum, but it brings out my strongest desire to be seen as “ladylike.” Everybody knows that a real lady never raises her voice—she has no need to. She’s in complete command of herself and those around her. Believe me, I can play the part of a lady to a T(ea!)—that’s why it’s called acting. Whether or not I bring those same qualities to my day to day life is an entirely different matter, and one for which I fear I have an opposite answer.
But are there additional aspects of this experience worth bringing into our day to day lives?
What happens when we take something as uninspired as an egg salad sandwich and transform it from a messy, quick lunch into a small, measured, thoughtful starting point? A thin layer of butter, watercress greens, minutely chopped eggs all fitted neatly inside a crustless triangle, square or rectangle is an entirely different experience than the ungainly sandwich tucked into a plastic bag that we mindlessly shovel in at our desks while checking email.
A Full Sensory Opportunity
China and silver service design; music and art; texture, temperature and flavors; warm scones from the oven and steeping tea leaves; cloth napkins, silky smooth tea cups, soft bread, crumbly scones, fragile macrons. Every sense is considered and delighted. Small details are accounted for and take on special significance in service to the whole.
Afternoon tea begs a specific answer to the question: Do you eat to live or do you live to eat? There’s little practical about the size of the food, the pace at which it’s consumed and the fat and caloric content of each course. But that’s precisely what makes it so enjoyable. Afternoon tea disrupts our normal food consumption habits to afford us the time and environment to consider something as seemingly insignificant as a sugar cube or a pickle and cheese sandwich from a whole new perspective of appreciation.
The Big Takeaway
Working with my coach this week, we uncovered that Personal Systems Disruption might not be huge, seismic shifts of the continental plates of our lives. Instead, it might very likely be tiny, small steps that build upon each other to create a whole experience and life. One small shift could go unnoticed and isn’t enough to keep us going, but courses of shifts, intentionally created to stand alone and make up the whole, lend themselves to a moment and life that matters.
For expediency, sustenance and mindless ease, it’s easiest to grab a big sandwich and a large mug of tea. That meal, while filling, can be eaten with no thought, no enjoyment, no introspection. But turn that sandwich into a series of 4-6, two-bite sandwiches and you immediately recognize the care and attention that went into creating them. You stop and admire them. Your curiosity propels you into trying the next flavor combination.
You will find yourself reflecting often on that three-tiered platter of exquisitely designed sandwiches, scones and desserts. Engage in small shifts in thinking, intention and action and you will find the same thing: these are experiences that change you, in small ways at first but, taken as a whole, in ways that stay with you long after you’ve moved on.
Featured Photo Caption: This was on our table when we arrived at the most magical afternoon tea location I’ve ever been to at the Listoke House and Gardens in Ballymakenny, County Louth, Ireland May 2018.