High tech solution at high tea

December 01, 2002 11:00 pm
Baker High School teacher Gere Richardson wore the same white dress she wore to her high school prom her freshman year to Saturday's Holiday Tea at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Daughter Kial, herself a freshman at Baker High School, worked with her grandmother to make period hats for herself and her mother. (Baker City Herald/Mike Ferguson).
Baker High School teacher Gere Richardson wore the same white dress she wore to her high school prom her freshman year to Saturday's Holiday Tea at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Daughter Kial, herself a freshman at Baker High School, worked with her grandmother to make period hats for herself and her mother. (Baker City Herald/Mike Ferguson).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

Saturday's Holiday Tea at the Interpretive Center proved at least one thing: an elegant affair with food and drink prepared and served with decorum and style is still one of the hottest tickets in town.

Even when the five-course tea and fashion show is competing directly with the semifinals of the Class 3A football playoffs.

The event was still a sell-out, despite the simultaneous draw of the Baker Bulldogs playing for their playoff lives just 45 minutes away in La Grande.

Two women at the tea, BHS teacher Gere Richardson and her daughter, Kial, solved their dilemma with some creative costuming. With help from her grandmother, Kial made hats for herself and her mother complete with swirling fabric that hearkened back to millinery from more than a century ago.

But the hats also had a modern-day function: the fabric, together with the women's historical hair-do's, hid tiny earpieces, which were connected to radios secluded inside each woman's dress.

All the better to keep up with the play-by-play of the Bulldogs' 42-21 loss to Ontario — and to enjoy the repast and the company of friends at the same time.

(Gere Richardson's husband, Joel, is an assistant football coach at BHS.)

If Saturday's tea involved just sitting down to enjoy the variety of the scrumptious meal, it would have been worth the $30 admission price. The menu included tea, of course, and also wassail; pumpkin scone with clotted cream (heating unpasturized milk until a semi-solid layer of thick cream forms on the surface, then cooling it and skimming off the cream); winter pear and Stilton (a blue-veined cheese with a wrinkled rind); tiny savories of lamb pocket, a red potato and smoked salmon points; a dessert plate including pumpkin tart, coconut-raspberry bar and huckleberry truffle; all followed by a cordial called a cranberry shrub, made from fruit juice, sugar and cream.

From time to time, NHOTIC interpretive specialist Nancy Harms would rise and offer what used to be called "elocution," advice directed mainly to the women in attendance about making their imagined 19th-century lives a little more civilized.

Here's how women of the day can be confident of their conversation skills: "If it's not in Shakespeare or it's not in the Bible, then it's an original thought," she opined.

"We took a vote years ago," she said later, "and decided to give our sixth petticoat to the Army to use as bandages" for Civil War casualties.

Harms also purported to read tea leaves. She told one surprised woman her tea leaves indicated she would have 18 children; another man learned he would soon take a journey and make numerous wrong turns, but "it will turn out all right in the end."

Each of the women serving — plus six others in the program listed as "additional fashionable persons" — participated in a Victorian -era fashion show midway through the meal.

The keepsake program gave attendees tips on how they, too, could be fashionable. During the Victorian era, women whose hair was considered too red could dye their hair with "walnut water," made from plumbate of potash.

"A lady of the era had to be wary of dyes as the results were unpredictable," the program warned.

It was also during the Victorian era that women began carrying "tussie mussies," a sweet smelling bouquet used to ward off the stench coming from the streets.

Bouquets in those days also carried the language of love. A bouquet of forget-me-nots indicated true love on the part of the male suitor.

But if the lady returned the favor with yellow roses or larkspur, it was bad news for the man: those flowers stood for infidelity and fickleness, respectively.

Afternoon tea was invented by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford (1783-1857), one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting.

According to the program, in Anna's day, "the upper crust ate a huge breakfast, little lunch and a late dinner. Every afternoon, the duchess experienced a ‘sinking feeling.'

"One afternoon, she instructed her servants to serve tea and little cakes in her boudoir. The experience was so delightful that she repeated it every afternoon thereafter. Soon others followed the Duchess' lead."

The 2003 Tea at NHOTIC will be held in springtime rather than late fall. The date has not yet been set, director Gay Ernst said, but will probably be held in April.