Posts Tagged ‘Las Vegas NM’

A Piece of a Past

March 2, 2014

Dear Much Appreciated Readers:

I have driven something over 600 miles between Wednesday morning and Saturday afternoon of this past week, reflecting a busy-ness that has left me no time to write. Please accept as this week’s post, a short essay I wrote last year and stored as a back-up piece, to be used in just this sort of situation.

A Memory of Tea

The first English tea I remember having was on the lawn of an elegant house in Victoria, British Columbia. My mother and I were on our zigzag way from Washington DC to join my father at his post as an economic officer at the U.S. embassy in Saigon, Vietnam. Back before anyone in the U.S had even heard of Vietnam. Just after that country’s successful fight for independence from France. I was twelve.

We children had just finished up a game of croquet. Tea included jam tarts and my first encounter with scones and cream. I remember the tea cups had roses on them, and were of such delicately thin china that the late afternoon sun shone through them. My mother gloried in experiencing a scene that could have come from her favorite Jane Austen novel. I gloried in the fact that she was, temporarily, enjoying herself, with her attention distracted from its usual petulant unhappiness with everything, including me.

My next English afternoon tea was in steamy Saigon, at the home of the British ambassador. His wife had taught her Vietnamese cook to make the pastries and scones, but there was no cream available. Tinned milk did not substitute. We ate the scones with a thick, rich marmalade instead.

I don’t recall having a proper tea again until some five years later. A friend of my father’s (both left Germany as young men, my father to settle in the U.S. but Eric to establish himself in England) had become a successful surgeon heading a hospital outside Sheffield. My parents were taking a driving vacation through southern England, from my father’s posting in Paris. I needed an operation on my wrist. “Uncle” Eric and his wife Hilda came down to collect me, welcoming me to their home with a full high tea served in their lovely back garden. How quickly did I learn not to insult the flower-filled space by calling it a yard (as it would be in the U.S.) And how quickly I also learned not to insult “Aunt” Hilda’s special face flannels by calling them by the American term wash cloths! I remember the Sheffield tea was served in pottery mugs, and the meal which accompanied them had a meat and cheese pie and salad, in addition to its pastries and scones with jam and cream.

Returned to the U.S. for college (university, to a Brit) and graduate school, I eventually settled in northeastern New Mexico, over 7000 feet high up in the foot hills of the Rocky Mountains. High plains desert landscapes, mostly brown – especially in the past ten years of drought – fit better with rodeo cookouts than English tea. Until my friend Anne Bradford arrived in town, to open The Carriage House Bed and Breakfast and offer afternoon tea. She made them fancy, a multi-tiered sandwich and pastry tower for each table, choice of at least three different types of tea, sausage rolls and cucumber sandwiches, scones with cream or jam, and strawberries. Her collection of teacups decorated the public rooms of the huge Victorian house, when they weren’t part of the meal service.

Anne grew up in Ardingly, in Sussex, and managed an elegant hotel in San Diego, California, before moving to Las Vegas, New Mexico (the original Las Vegas, the old one dating back to the 1600s, not the new gambling center in Nevada). Obviously adaptable herself, Anne succeeded in making traditional English teas seem perfectly appropriate to the old Southwest. They became a popular way to celebrate a birthday, graduation, or other special event. And they became a taste of home for the students from Great Britain who attended the United World College (UWC) located in nearby Montezuma.

After Anne closed the B and B, and went to work for the Plaza Hotel, she continued making teas available. For the birthday of one of my staff, we all dressed and celebrated in the hotel’s Victorian elegance.

Tea at the Plaza Hotel

Tea at the Plaza Hotel

We were among the last groups to enjoy the event before Anne left the hotel – which subsequently changed ownership.

Now, when I welcome UWC students, I fix tea in my own home. The atmosphere is far more casual, and the meal is possibly less authentic. But we do have pretty china cups, sandwiches, and plates of scones and cream. And we share my memories of a tradition that continues to span the world, linking anglophiles in jungles, in deserts, in vintage homes and in commercial hotels. Linking Sapello, New Mexico with Sheffield, England and all the far flung places where afternoon tea has been – and often still is – enjoyed.

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