We said aloha to a family member yesterday with a small but lovely and loving service and a small but equally lovely reception following in the church hall.
The loving part of planning the reception? Not so much. The number of memos, phone calls and e-mails, the to-ing and fro-ing, the mental anguish, the “nobody TOLD me!!” and the “but I thought I was doing that!!!” that went into preparing a simple cold collation (look it up: it means “a light meal, especially at an unusual time,” according to my OED) is still staggering my mind. Tea sandwiches, a Chinese chicken salad, a fruit platter, cookies, coffee and lemonade. Some paper goods. Some ice. How much simpler can you get? A caterer would die laughing.
I’ve concluded two things from all this: 1) I will never again arrange a meal in a group; either I cater the whole thing or I bring a single dish or I’m out — I just don’t play well with others, and 2) I love tea sandwiches.
What, pray tell, O Wanda of the stream-of-conciousness writing style, is a tea sandwich? Why isn’t it just a sandwich?
Well — and don’t get your petticoats tangled, my feminist friends — but a tea sandwich is a girl and a sandwich is a boy.
A tea sandwich is a graceful, silk or light cotton garden party dress with a tight bodice and a swirling skirt. Sandwiches are jeans. Or cargo pants. And a T-shirt.
Tea sandwiches are delicately nibbled. Sandwiches are chomped into.
Tea sandwiches are made with bread as pillowy as a marshmallow. Sandwiches are made on breads that hark back to our years as carnivores; you have to tear into them with your bare teeth.
Tea sandwiches are tiny and never, ever, under any circumstances messy. With sandwiches, you generally have to take a long look first, turn the thing this way and that in your hands, and decide where best to try and grab a bite without squirting sauce and other ingredients all over yourself.
A tea sandwich is dainty. Always cut on the diagonal. Often trimmed of the crust (Providence forbid that something so crusty and gritty ever cross a lady’s lips!). Usually filled with something that requires no chewing whatsoever — paper-thin cucumber, a few leaves of watercress, egg salad, fish or meat paste, potted shrimp (which is just shrimp, minced and packed in butter).
Banned are sliced meats except for very delicate shaved ham, and not much of it. Cheeses might make an appearance, but usually not. Butter and mayonnaise are the binders or dressings of choice. Never anything so harsh as mustard or — horrors! — anything spicy or sour or complicated.
Except, perhaps, a thin smear of homemade mango chutney with a bit of aged Cheddar. You MIGHT get away with that if you had panache. Western-style mango chutney originated with colonial England and mango chutney and the Raj go together like bread and butter. And tea sandwiches were once a staple of tea as defined in the stately houses of England, which generally had one or more members in the Colonial service. In working class circles, “tea” was more likely to mean what we would call supper or dinner; the men were still working at 3 or 4 when tea was served.
SHORT BRITISH DIVERSION, IGNORE IF YOU LIKE: State houses had breakfast — a buffet with hot stations, so to speak, with servants in and out taking orders, replenishing the kedgeree, taking egg orders, and so on; luncheon, which was generally a light meal and might not be taken by all family members; tea, which meant dainty sandwiches and hefty fruit-based cakes and tea and perhaps sherry; and dinner, which was served later in the evening, with great pomp and everyone had to dress.
But among the working class, breakfast might be porridge or a good “fry up” (bacon, fried bread, eggs — ohmigosh, you haven’t really experienced fat, salt, sugar and cholesterol at its finest unless you’ve had one of these breakfasts, I bow down to lard); fro the ladies at home and perhaps the men who worked near the house, there might be “elevenses,” which was a sort of pre-lunch or it might be lunch, and was rather like tea, with fresh-baked things or possibly some hot leftovers; then there might be lunch — pungent, aged cheese, ham or sausage or a raised pork pie and crusty bread and perhaps a thick soup (again with the leftovers); and then tea, which was really supper or dinner — meat and potatoes and two veg. And then they went to bed because they got up at the crack of dawn.
So tea sandwiches are Maggie Smith in “Gosford Park” (remember how catty she was about the marmalade not being homemade?). Sandwiches are Stanley Holloway as Alfred Doolittle (Eliza’s Dad; “Get Me To The Church on Time”) in “My Fair Lady. Got it?
So here’s what you do. You go to Don Quijote or Shirokiya or DeeLite Bakery and you get the whitest, lightest sandwich bread there is. You cut off the crusts (whir them in the Cuisinart — freeze the crumbs and use them to crust something later; or feed ’em to the birds). The bread should be no bigger than a wallet-size photograph. You make something veddy, veddy, veddy delicate with butter or mayonnaise. You do NOT use lettuce; you use only the tenderest leaves of watercress or cucumber cut so fine you can see through it. You spread the bread with the mixture or with slightly softened butter (the best you can afford, because British butter is orgasmic!), you add your vegetables. You place them on your very best, most decorative china, preferably on a tiered cake server.
Or, on the other hand, you forget the whole thing and go to A Cup of Tea in Kailua or the Halekulani in Waikiki and let them do it. They do it so well.
I must add that, yesterday, the things we got under the title of “tea sandwiches” from a supermarket that shall remain nameless, were not this at all: They were regular sandwich meats and processed sliced cheese. And mustard. Mustard on every one. Ugh! (I think in America tea sandwiches means small, expensive sandwiches.)
I’ve got to run right this minute but I’ll add a tea sandwich filling recipe to this post later today. And perhaps a photo.