High Time for High Tea

This was my feature piece, a braided essay on the history of high/afternoon tea, coupled with a review of the Inn on Negley in the neighborhood Shadyside in Pittsburgh, PA.

Originally published in The Original Magazine, Issue 12, May 2013.

High Time for High Tea
When in doubt, pinky out
Danielle Levsky

Though I started drinking tea at the tender age of six, never in my life did I get the opportunity to attend an English Tea Time. My parents immigrated to the United States just a year before I was born. We created our own teas at home, with many selections and traditional Russian style sandwiches and treats set up across the table: buttered bread with caviar, potato salad, egg salad, salami and meat slices, pâté, green onion, herring. Growing up with this kind of experience, I always figured that Afternoon/High Teas were for those who didn’t “know” their tea and had to be taught.

In my household, tea has always been a staple in our diet. After arriving from a day of school, or, in my parents’ case, work, each of us would settle down in the kitchen and boil ourselves a pot of hot water. While I would do my homework or study, a mug of steaming hot tea would rest by my books and papers. At night, just before bed, my mother and I would have to have a cup of tea or we couldn’t fall asleep. Tea was not used as a method of caffeine consumption in our home, but as a treat we couldn’t live without. There is always a large selection of teas available, ranging from Earl Grey to English Breakfast to Russian Black to White with Lavender to Green to Red to Herbal. We only have one rule: we never, ever drink Lipton.

Maybe it’s a bit judgmental and hierarchical, but any other tea lover will tell you that a hierarchy does exist. Tea packets do not taste the same. Depending on what company they’re from, what country they originate from, what the material of the tea bags is made out of (Paper? Linen? Silk?), or if the tea is loose-leaf (Is it in a tin can? Metal can? A plastic bag? A paper bag?), the texture and taste of the tea changes all together.

The Afternoon Tea ritual may have been started by the French. It first arrived in Paris in 1636 (22 years before it appeared in England) and became popular among the aristocracy. The writings of Madame de Sévigné, a noblewoman in 17th century France, gossiped in letters to her daughter about the going-ons of Paris and frequently mentioned tea. She wrote that the tradition of adding milk to tea was started by the Marquise de la Sablière, another French noblewoman.

I was invited to attend an English High Tea Service with my boyfriend’s family. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, so I felt that I overdressed for the occasion. Turns out the old adage is true: you can never be overdressed, just underdressed. As we walked into the Inn on Negley, a little bed-and-breakfast in Shadyside, we were greeted with exquisite antiques, paintings, and furnishings that brought us back to the Victorian period.

By 1700, tea was available in more than 500 coffee houses in London. Tea drinking became even more popular when Queen Anne (1665–1714) chose tea over ale as her regular breakfast drink.

The Inn was originally a single family house, built in 1884 by the family Chaplin for well under $6,000. It was built on Negley, where the very first streetcars began to drive by. At the time, most of the populace and activity was along Forbes Ave. by the large, Victorian mansions on Mansion Row. This Italianate Victorian style, moderate home began the residential and commercial expansion into east Shadyside. The Hoffmann family, notable for laying gas lines throughout Pittsburgh, purchased the house and remained there, living as a family for more than 50 years. Throughout its ownership history, it remained a privately owned home. In 1997, Liz Sullivan purchased the establishment while it was a three-bedroom inn. The expansion from a three-bedroom to the current eight-bedroom began in 1999. All the original infrastructures — the plaster work, the woodwork, Victorian fireplaces, floors, and shutters — are still well preserved and honored.

During the second half of the Victorian Period, also known as the Industrial Revolution, working husbands would return home exhausted from a long day’s work. Their wife or maid would set the table with meats, bread, butter, pickles, cheese, and the drink of choice, tea. Because the meal was eaten at a high, dining table rather than the low, Aristocratic tea table, it was termed “High” tea.

By the time we were seated in the Fernwood Tea Room, with a round, cherry-wooden table, and surrounded with period paintings of children in elegant frocks and countryside scenes, I wanted to ask for my petticoat.

It is said that “Afternoon” tea was created by Anne, Duchess of Bedford. In the late 1830s, the English normally had two meals: breakfast in the morning and dinner late at night. Anne was said to have had a “sinking feeling” during the long gap between meals, and requested for her ladies-in-waiting to bring her light sandwiches and tea in the late afternoon. She began to invite others to join her during her Afternoon Tea and thus, started a tradition.

The most difficult part in choosing a tea from the menu was that the variety and selection was outstanding: the menu stemmed from very traditional black and green teas, to exquisitely flavored and aromatic loose teas. I became partial to the loose-leaf Chocolate Mint Black Tea, so I went with that one as my first choice.

While we were deciding what to order, the owner of the inn, Liz Sullivan, came to see our table. She was well acquainted and kept in touch with most of her frequent customers, including my boyfriend’s parents. When I spoke to Liz Sullivan later about the High Tea Service and the inn and itself, she emphasized that their chef made the experience unique.

“Our chef is well trained and an expert baker. The food is paramount to a good tea, and the service must be equally as captivating,” Liz said. “It’s a comforting and culturally influenced ritual. We present everything in an elegant, yet relaxed way. You still feel the Pittsburgh charm.”

Indeed, even the layout of the table was perfectly created. The silverware that was brought out was beautiful, decorated in gold and flowers. Now, I usually drink my tea without any add-ons, but the server recommended that I add a little milk and honey to my tea. It smelled like chocolate cake, and the add-ons truly brought out the flavor of the chocolate and the mint. I’m a very easily amused girl, so the fact that the sugar was given to us in sugar cubes and the honey in little plastic tubes sent me over the edge.

Since then, “High” and “Afternoon” Tea has evolved into what is served in many English Tea establishments throughout the United States. My experience at the Inn on Negley would have been traditionally notated as an “Afternoon” Tea. It was sometimes known as “Low” Tea because guests were seated in low armchairs with low side-tables on which they would place their cups and saucers.

After I finished two (or maybe three) cups of my chocolate-y tea, the server encouraged all of us to sample more teas. I opted for a more traditional green tea, just as the server brought out marmalade and cherry jam in little, silver bowls. Then, a tiered cake stand of cucumber or egg and mustard cress sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and a selection of pastries and small cakes followed. We each sampled the dishes, marveling at how such fresh, simple ingredients could taste so delicious. Perhaps it was the inclusion of the delicious food, or the wonderful company, or the piping hot and aromatic tea, or maybe the beautiful and historic atmosphere, but as our High Tea began to wind down, I felt that I had learned more about tea drinking in the past hour than I had in my lifetime.

All at once, I felt regal and perfectly content.

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