Sometimes, the old ways really are better.
I’m reminded of this frequently when reading Victorian books or attending panels at a steampunk convention. But nothing drives it home like an in-person experience. And what more Victorian experience could there be than high tea?
Last year, thanks to the Milwaukee Steampunk Society, I discovered high tea at the Schuster Mansion here in Milwaukee. Innkeepers Rick and Laura Sue put the kettle on numerous days each year, pairing a delicious spread with themed activities and a tour of the 1891 brick treasure they bought for a song and have lovingly restored.
This year, I invited my mom to go with me to the Christmas edition. Seven kinds of Harney tea and three courses of homemade treats later . . . I realized some of the most delicious morsels weren’t on the table at all.
Habit #1: Cure your teacup.
If you’re British, this may come as no surprise. But as an American, I’ve never seen anyone pour their cream and sugar into their cup first before pouring tea. I urge you to try it sometime. Not only is it less messy but, at least to me, the tea and fixings actually blend better than when mixed the other way around. (This assumes, of course, that you’re using loose leaf tea and not a tea bag.)
Habit #2: Drink loose tea.
I caught onto this one last year after tasting Harney teas for the first time at my first-ever Schuster Mansion high tea. Now, it’s the only brand I buy . . . and I always buy loose. The flavor far-and-away can’t be beat. And mess isn’t really the issue you’d think it is, especially if you’re using a teapot with a built-in strainer. Otherwise, a handy external strainer on your cup does the trick.
Habit #3: Hang your Christmas tree.
Okay, it’s not a tree, really. More like a vertical wreath? But as Laura Sue reminded us, before Queen Victoria introduced the Germanic tree tradition, her subjects hung a garland from their ceilings and decorated it. It’s a stunning centerpiece. Even better, it’s firmly out of reach. If you have small children (or, like me, cats that tore down your Christmas tree this weekend!) you’ll appreciate why this tradition ought to be revived.
Habit #4: Fold your napkin.
Random, I know. But it’s amazing how much less self-conscious you feel when your napkin is folded in thirds so that the fold faces toward you, allowing you to slip your fingers inside the fabric and wipe them . . . completely out of sight. We gained much when tore off the yoke of excessive etiquette. But a few of those rules were pretty smart and probably shouldn’t have gotten the cut. Barbecue, anyone?
Habit #5: Build beautiful things.
During tea, I was struck by how surrounded we were by beautiful things. Not just the incredible woodwork or intricate construction of the mansion itself, but the quality of Laura Sue’s antique china, the old gadgets she’s collected to decorate the place, and even the details on the old-fashioned Christmas decorations. In an era of “throwaway art and decor,” it’s both refreshing and inspiring to stand amid handcrafted beauty that, despite its age, never really grows old.
I could name many more things, but as we enjoyed our delicious spread and tour of the mansion, these leapt out at me once again.
I went home and fixed myself another pot of tea and looked at my own Victorian house-in-progress. Perhaps someday it too will be a testament to the grandeur of a time gone by. A time that—while receding ever deeper into the past—still has much to say to us today.
As the Victorians would say . . . “Happy Christmas!” (And a very merry high tea to you.)
Learn more about the Schuster mansion and upcoming high tea events at their website.