Tea and brownies with Bertha Palmer

Tea and brownies with Bertha Palmer

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I’m a bad Chinese tea drinker, according to my grandfather. He drank his oolong black, the way good Chinese should. Me? Almost as soon as I could read, I learned about the English and their sweet, milky tea. When I tried it, I knew I’d found my tea people. Maybe it was environmental, since I was born in Hong Kong when it was still a British colony.

Of course I’m simpfliying. At dim sum, I’ll sip my tea straight; same with many fine rare teas. My tea expert friends need not worry.

But at a recent afternoon tea, hosted by Bertha Palmer—or rather, the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance presenting the historical actress Leslie Goddard playing the part of Mrs. Potter Palmer—it was Earl Grey so it had to be, two lumps and milk.

The program was recorded by Chicago Amplified and can be heard here.

Greater Midwest Foodways is “dedicated to celebrating, exploring and preserving unique food traditions and their cultural contexts in the American Midwest.”

During our tea, it was confirmed that tea with milk and sugar was just a personal preference, and with bone china the milk acts as a buffer to hot tea, keeping cups from shattering.

Afternoon teas are really so not just about the tea though, are they? They’re about the little sandwiches, crusts removed, cut into cute shapes.

And scones, served with Devonshire cream and jam—we had strawberry preserves and lemon curd.

And the petits fours, tartelettes, and tiny vienoisseries. When I made pastries for tea at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, we had to always be mindful that a lady could pick up a sweet, finish it in a lady-like bite or two, leaving no trace on her lady fingers.

Culinary legend has it that Bertha invented the brownie, or that it was made at her direction by the chefs at the Palmer House Hotel. While that’s been de-bunked, Wikipedia still gives her credit, as do a number of recipes. I wonder what Bertha would say in a session of the Wikipedia Files?

At the Greater Midwest Foodways tea, a live auction was held, which included pies, cakes, and a variation on the infamous Palmer House brownie, with walnuts, but sans apricot glaze.

Also auctioned were the paper fascinators my sister, Annie Chu, made for the occasion—because an afternoon tea is not only more than just tea and tiny food, it’s about the hats, and in this case, tiny ones too.

Proceeds went to Greater Midwest Foodways, which has just announced the Spring 2012 symposium, all about road food. Have something to say about road food? The call for presentations has just been announced. Apply here.