Where have all the teapots, tea trays, sugar pots, brewed tea and tea cosies gone?
In The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, Oscar Wilde writes pages about Algernon’s Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell, being expected to tea, the preparation of cucumber sandwiches, the prevention of Algernon’s friend, Jack from eating them; Aunt Augusta getting none because Algernon has eaten each of them; and her indifference to their absence on account of already having had tea — and crumpets — with a friend.
Contrary to appearances, this isn’t about sandwiches — or crumpets or scones — it’s a lament for the disappearance of a lifestyle. And, lest the anti-imperialists come after me, hammer and sickle, particularly it’s about the linen that seems to have been thrown away with the dishwater. As Bunty says on every one of her trips to India, what happened to brewed tea, to teapots, to tea trays, sugar pots and milk jugs, to tea cosies; who can drink this boiled, milky soup, served readymade, in a glass? While one man’s poison is another’s soup, I agree with her: skipping tea is preferable to drinking that viscous, reddish brown potion, especially since I’ve pared down my tea to a golden brew, fragrant with Darjeeling leaves, sans even milk and sugar, let alone tulsi, adrak, and masala. As long as the tea comes in a pot, preferably clay; and, even better, a Brown Betty of red Staffordshire; and covered with a thick, loosely fitting tea cosy, because it takes a while to drink a potful, and it should remain hot, till the last cup.
The immediate provocation for this tirade came from a spring clean I attempted, of my mother’s linen cupboard. Among tray and tea-table cloths, tea cosy covers, cocktail and tea napkins, there were egg cosies. Bystanders and new retainers were stumped: is it a bird, is it a plane? It was Supermom’s egg cosy set. I know, I know, no one sits down to breakfast en famille any more; who eats boiled eggs when the cardio jury is still out on the cholesterol verdict; and, most important, does anyone have time to wait for breakfast — or for the eggs to wait, snug in their cosies, for breakfasters to descend? And yet. The sight of a rack of fresh toast, a dish of butter curls and an egg cup with a large brown egg bonneted in a cosy makes me smile with satisfaction. I’m out of date, out of fashion, outmoded, unfashionable, passé, démodé, behind the times, antiquated, prehistoric, antediluvian, conservative, backward-looking, anachronistic, fusty, and moth-eaten. Yes. But tea cosies are celebrated. Even a contemporary comedian like Billy Connolly says, “Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosy, doesn’t try it on.” That thought makes me smile too and remember how, as a child I’d watch my parents drink their tea on a winter morning, wait for the last cup to be poured and promptly don the hat-that-warms-the-ears.
The other relic that bothers me because it’s about to become extinct is the dinner napkin. In the best homes, paper napkins rule. Now there are these expensive imported ones that feel “almost like cloth, doesn’t it?” with not just roses and sunflowers but subtle white-on-white patterns, damask style. And I remember what Wili does. Every few years, sick of bemoaning the too-small napkins in the shops and of guests who wipe their hands on her napery, she descends on the fanciest furnishing store in Delhi, buys yards of white damask — which can be bleached of Indian haldi curry stains — and orders them to run up four dozen 18 x 18 inch dinner napkins. I’ve inherited my mother’s damask linen, but am not able to resist new, bright Fabindia and Good Earth prints and weaves. They do sell napkins, fringed or hemmed, but they’re never dinner napkin size: they must be made to cover the laps of gnomes or dwarves.
From the linen cupboard I took the cloth coasters. The shops are full of metal and plastic ones, both of which let puddles form so that when you lift a glass, the coaster, stuck to the bottom of the glass with surface tension, comes along and falls, along with some water, on your lap. And there were other joys: pot holders and sandwich wrappers. Pot holders, bought from WIT in Bombay, as if was then known, which my grandmother called “jug pickers”, and without which one would drop the pot and silver creamer. The cross-shaped sandwich wrappers, of embroidered muslin, were sprinkled with water before wrapping them around sandwiches, to prevent the bread from drying and curling up at the corners. I’m sure polythene would do the trick, though it wouldn’t be half as elegant. Kavita, knowing they’re rare, bought us both dozens of doilies when she found them. Old-fashioned net, edged with handmade tatting, weighted with translucent glass beads; small ones, to cover milk jugs.
Today, wanting to photograph some “antiquated” linen, I found we’d put our eggcups, which I needed as a prop, into storage. So I asked Neelam, our unfortunately only temporary landlady. She, another dinosaur, like me, had some. So I went up and had a cup of coffee with her, freshly ground and brewed in a caffettiera. Together we moaned about the state of affairs. I can see that, though times may change, as Eliot wrote in “Portrait of a Lady”, “I shall sit here, serving tea to friends.”