Cooking tea? I thought; and said, "What do you mean cooking tea? And why would it take an hour? You boil water throw it over a tea-bag and call it a day."
Granted, that's even more than I do while at work. One of my campus offices doesn't have a stove or electric kettle so my version of 'cooking tea' is placing a teabag in a mug, pouring water over it and placing it in the microwave for two minutes. Voilà - hot tea!
Blasphemy to some, but then, I'm American. What do I care about afternoon tea? During summer afternoons I'd much rather have an iced coffee anyway. My ideal beverage is poured over ice in a biodegradable plastic cup at the local coffee house. I add a dollop of liquid sugar, cream, cap it with a lid, and insert straw - perfect. I can idly walk around my village slurping away while perusing the $185 dollar sleeveless blouses at the corner boutique that I might one day buy without guilt once this book makes a gazillion dollars for me.
Back to the tea tradition though. I was not brought up with it. So it was difficult for me to consider how to write the tea party scene with one of the characters in my novel, Alvah Dunning, a gruff, belligerent, famous, Adirondack guide and Mrs. Heloise Hannah Timbrell Durant - Dr. Thomas Durant's English wife. (Durant was famous for building the transcontinental railroad.)
According to testimony I found documented in a court case (People vs. Ladew 1907), over the ownership of Osprey Island; in 1879, William's cousin, Charles Durant, wanted to build a house on Osprey Island where Alvah owned a couple of cabins and claimed squatter's rights. Mrs. Durant invited Alvah to Pine Knot one afternoon to discuss the 'occupancy' issue over a cup of tea.
Not much is known about Hannah Timbrell Durant. What I have found out is that she was born in 1825 in England and that her father, a corn dealer, went bankrupt in 1830. Shortly afterwards, Hannah's mother died and her family emigrated to America where she eventually met and married Thomas Durant in 1847.
In 1861, Hannah and the Durant children moved to England to live while her husband Thomas Durant built the Transcontinental Line - soon after the Civil War broke out. They lived more than a decade overseas. Taking part in tea parties as an afternoon activity would have figured prominently in their lives. So I assume it was a custom they brought back with them to the States. (It is telling, that the inventory of the items left behind at Pine Knot when William sold it to Collis P. Huntington in 1895 includes six tea, but only one, coffee pot).
Given my lack of knowledge about tea besides that it comes in a bag and in many varieties, I was at a loss on how to approach the tea party scene with Alvah and Mrs. Durant. I found inspiration one day while sitting in the library, thoughts of tea and how little I cared about it swimming through my head, when I happened to see in my peripheral vision on the book shelf a small, charming book with the title: A Proper Tea by Joanna Isles.
I took it off the shelf to read. My goodness! Who would have thought that anyone cared so much about tea? The Brits, obviously. This little book explained the history of tea in Britain, and even more importantly, defined clotted cream (when someone suggested I try clotted cream and scones with tea when I visit England this summer, I thought, clotted cream? Why would I want clotted cream in my tea?).
According to Joanna Isles, middle and upper-class Brits started the tradition of taking tea around four or five pm to stave off hunger before the large evening meal. Credit for this brilliant idea goes to the Duchess of Bedford who first invited ladies to her parlor to imbibe in gossip and tea in the early 1800s.
It was easy then to imagine the Adirondack guide, Alvah Dunning's reaction to the invitation from Mrs. Durant to partake in an afternoon tea party. What might he think about being served tea on a hot afternoon in the Adirondack Wilderness from a fine English teapot, served in fine English teacups while negotiating a land transaction? I pretended I was him when I wrote the scene.