Tea Parties Must Make a Comeback

There is no reader question this week. Helena has an etiquette announcement to make, based on her own discoveries.

It seems increasingly difficult to throw a dinner or cocktail party. You invite people by email and half the guests don’t respond, or else the only slot they have available is six months hence. Rising food prices mean a hefty grocery bill. You embark on the cooking only to get a text from one of your guests informing you she is vegan, has a wheat allergy, and doesn’t eat mushrooms.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I hit upon the perfect way to bypass all these difficulties: Why not invite people to tea?

Afternoon tea might seem stuffy and outmoded, summoning thoughts of doilies, frocks, and three-tiered cake stands. It might also seem like it’s only appropriate for special occasions like Mother’s Day and baby showers. But I believe that afternoon tea is on the cusp of a revival. It’s the perfect social occasion for the modern age.

Here’s why.

You can throw a tea party with less than 24 hours’ notice. While weekend evenings are usually booked well in advance, tea ideally happens during the afternoon, which is an often unclaimed piece of social real estate. And dinner parties are mostly limited to six or eight guests, but tea gives you a chance to catch up with a lot of friends at once. (A good rule of thumb is to only have as many people over as you have seats.) You can invite people you want to know better, and if they turn out to be boring you’re not trapped with them for the whole evening.

A few weeks ago, I started calling people at 5 p.m. on Saturday for a tea I was holding from 4 to 6 p.m. the following day. I made it a fixed time period, since I felt people might be reluctant to commit to an open-ended social event on short notice. Of the 15 friends I invited, only two couples couldn’t make it. Everyone responded to the invitation, most within a few hours.

Sunday afternoon is perfect, because it’s a time when many people fret about getting their laundry done or returning to work on Monday. Tea cheers them up. It combats the recession blues too. It’s no coincidence that in Britain (where I’m from) despite the global credit crunch tearooms say business is booming.

Tea is cheap, too. You don’t have to fork out for artisan cheeses or wine. All you need to do is make some scones, or perhaps some tea sandwiches. (Plain old cucumber is boring: Try apple and fennel or radish and sweet butter instead.)

You need not bake anything from scratch, but people are always disproportionately impressed when you do. If your scones are misshapen or your cake looks like a toddler did the frosting, so much the better: You don’t want a formal atmosphere, otherwise people may feel like they should be wearing hats and sipping with their pinkies crooked. Feel free to leave the crusts on your sandwiches and use mismatched mugs.

My one concern with the tea party I threw was the lack of alcohol. It’s a lot easier to relax at a party with a drink or two, and many of my guests didn’t know one another. I considered serving champagne (appropriate whatever the time of day) or sherry, but decided not to as I wanted to keep it a budget event. In the end, no one seemed to miss the booze. Some of the guests were battling hangovers from the previous evening, so they were more than happy not to drink.

People made short work of the scones and seemed to enjoy themselves. I certainly did. But since all the guests were sober, they didn’t linger for hours. By 7 p.m., everyone had gone, leaving me plenty of time to do my laundry.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.