Friday, October 10, 2008

Memories of Tea & Sympathy

I'm really enjoying Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. As I said in an earlier post the film is rubbish, but the book is brilliant.

One of the best bits about reading about Young's New York exploits is coming across locations that I became familiar with during my time living there. I was particularly thrilled to read his mention of the Greenwich village 'greasy spoon', aka Tea & Sympathy, as I worked as a waitress there for a couple of months last summer. As I discovered, it really is a New York institution, on a par with shopping for budget designer underwear at Century 21 department store, ice skating in Central Park and buying organic fruit from the Wholefoods on Union Square. Tea & Sympathy is comprised of a tea shop (where I worked, alongside an all-English group of faithful waitresses, some of whom have been there for over a decade), a shop which resembles a Sylvanian families replica of an Olde English sweet shop, and a chippy called 'Salt & Battery'. Tea & Sympathy is, I soon learned, a big celebrity hang-out, favoured by the likes of Rupert Everett (who Nicky refers to as Rupert, reminding everyone they're on first name terms), SJP and Jake Gyllenhaal. David Bowie even rented the whole place out for his 50th birthday bash, back in the day.

While I was working at T&S, I was quickly indoctrinated into the intricate list of do's and don'ts that customers and staff must abide by, if they want to stay on the good side of Nicky, the fiery owner/manager, originally from South London but now a New York establishment in her own right (check the press links on the website for proof). There's even a list of 'Nicky's Rules' stuck firmly onto the front door of the diminutive tea shop, just to make sure there's no messing around. The rules insist that no one can go just for tea, some kind of edible must be consumed. There's also to be no rudeness to members of staff, and, most of all, THE WHOLE PARTY must be present before a table can be seated. You've been warned. I worked there during the summer months, but apparently the warm aroma of apple crumble and treacle pudding pulls in double the customers during winter months - even if it involves waiting in line when it's minus 5 Farenheit outside.

I used to enjoy serving up bangers and mash, eggs on toast and shepherd's pie to homesick expats and anglophile New Yorkers. My favourite was preparing 'Afternoon tea for two' on old-fashioned, metal stacked servers: a portion to share included a selection of finger sandwiches, three slices of cake (chocolate was always one of them), and scones, clotted cream and jam. Everything was prepared in-house by head chef Jimmy and his colleagues, who must be among the only New York-dwelling Latin Americans in the world who've tried marmite and know that 'rosie lee' means tea.

I do think it's funny how you can find more typically 'British' traditions abroad. I mean, how many people really do sit down to afternoon tea these days, here in the UK? It's the same in ex-colonial countries. Whenever I used to visit my grandparents in Bangalore in South India, one of my favourite treats would be to stock up on the tantalisingly titled 'rich plum cake' from Nilgiri's - a supermarket founded during British rule which still sold old fashioned Johnson's soap, tin jars of Cadbury's cocoa and Pond's Cold Cream - and tuck into a good old 'high tea', with the addition of Indian savouries, of course. I still remember the days when I lived in Nairobi as a child, lounging on the deckchairs in the beautiful gardens of Karen Blixen's house, sipping on Earl Grey. Or those crisp, dark early mornings in the Masai Mara, when ginger biscuits, pungent and dampened by the humidity, and hot, steaming tea, coaxed us out of our camp beds and into our land rovers. I can also recall afternoons spent at Langata's Giraffe Manor where we'd climb a raised wooden platform to feed the tall, graceful giraffes pelettes straight onto their long, black tongues, before tucking into our own tea of scones and cream.

The nearest I've come to replicating those childhood tea-time experiences is at the Orchard Tea Rooms in Grantchester, near Cambridge - sitting in those deckchairs in the open air really does take me back to my Nairobi days. Proust was definitely right, there's something about the tastes, smells and sensations one experiences when growing up that just can't be forgotten. But the Orchard isn't the real world, either - it's about as frozen in time as you can get. Maybe that dreamy idea of lazy afternoon tea can only exist for those 'exiled' from home (or in the novels of P.G Wodehouse or Richmal Crompton, of course). But that's probably a good thing. It wouldn't be half so special if it were a reality.

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