Rice, Tea, and Milkshakes

Places and ways to eat

Katherine Spiers

Would you look at that Spam fried rice. It’s more than I ever thought Spam fried rice could be, a little saucy, and spicy and rich. You want to finish it in one sitting, but you really can’t. It’s at a cafe in Los Angeles called Spoon By H, a place I hadn’t bothered to go to because I thought its specialties were all teas and desserts. And then I tasted this, truly thought for a second I was being pranked, and realized I was the wrongest girl in all the land.

(I went there two days before Bill Addison’s rave LA Times review came out. Food writer synergy.)

Spoon By H is now on my list of restaurants everyone must go to, both to understand Southern California and just eat fantastic food. Let me know if you go. -KS

[What’s an essential restaurant in your town? Please tell me here.]

Photo: Alexandra Hawkins

Shake It Around

Goldie Falafel in Philadelphia makes excellent falafel, but that might not be the star of the shop. Stop at one of three locations and order a $5 tahini milkshake, a shake that challenges everything you thought you knew about frozen desserts.

First, it's completely vegan; second, it's not tooth-achingly sweet; third, you just might finish it without a stomachache. If you’ve only tried tahini in a savory context like hummus, this shake will be a revelation: the sesame seed butter is remarkably versatile. Just as peanut butter is equally at home in an herby dressing and a peanut butter cup, tahini plays well with sugar or spice. 

Chef Caitlin McMillan shares a home version in Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook’s Israeli Soul cookbook. The process takes two days and yields a close facsimile of the restaurant version, but nothing can replicate the texture created by an industrial blender, which yields a creamy, not icy shake. 

On your first visit, order a plain shake. Then go for flavors: Turkish coffee makes it perky; and the banana version is a fun play on a peanut butter banana smoothie. (Skip the mint chocolate flavor.) Just be careful. I live 90 miles from Philadelphia and can confirm, these shakes are habit-forming. Three locations; goldiefalafel.com. -Abigail Koffler

Photo: Flickr/Deseronto Archives

Afternoon Tea: Please Don’t Put Your Pinkies Up

By Julia Skinner

[Ed. note: All links go to endnotes page.]

As the story goes, some time in the 1840s, Anna Maria Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, felt hungry in the long stretch between her noontime lunch and her very late evening dinner and had a small snack and a pot of tea brought to her private rooms. She enjoyed the ritual so much that she repeated it, eventually inviting friends, and then inspiring copycats, and thus the meal of afternoon tea was born.

Of course the truth is more complex than this: She certainly was not the only person to have a snack and a pot of tea prior to 1840.

However, Russell still played a critical role in afternoon tea, by building a structure around an otherwise informal and personal activity. This structure includes a few components: a certain time of day (mid-afternoon), expectations around the food served (tea with light fare like scones and small, crustless sandwiches), social norms around the meal (a casual sit down meal eaten privately or with friends), etc

Of course, the meal never would have become a larger cultural phenomenon unless other people picked it up. Russell was a close friend of Queen Victoria, and because of this was looked to as a trendsetter. When she began holding intimate tea gatherings, people wanted in, and when they weren’t invited, began to hold their own. This was at the time when tea was becoming more affordable and widely consumed, making the meal something that was in reach for the middle classes who soon adopted it, and later for English society as a whole.

Counterintuitive to our modern wording, these early tea gatherings were called “low teas,” because of the low-profile chairs attendees would sit in. “High tea,” on the other hand, was initially the afternoon tea of the working classes (where people sat in higher profile chairs at a dining table). Low tea eventually morphed into “afternoon tea” as it became more popular, and high tea eventually morphed into the evening meal of “tea,” as it is still referred to in some parts of England.

Relatively early on, the Victorian obsession with etiquette kicked in, and we find guidance for how to properly prepare and serve the tea, what foods to serve, and the appropriate attire to wear. Tea gowns, a casual flowing garment that flattered the body without a corset, became a very popular choice around the 1870s, and provided women a comfortable clothing option to wear for small, women-only gatherings in the home. Delicate gloves were worn throughout the meal unless one was eating food with a sauce or soft frosting

Some of these guidelines exist to this day. For example:

  • Pour tea for guests, but allow each to add sugar and cream to their own tea. 

  • Add cream to tea, not tea to cream (in other words, pour your tea first before doctoring it)

  • Stir your tea gently: it’s rude to clank your spoon on the edges of the cup

  • Don’t slurp your tea

And, the quickest way to identify yourself as a first timer is to put your pinkies up. Don’t do it!

Today’s etiquette books are less strict about dress and behavior, but they do focus on one thing: the food. Those tiny sandwiches, for instance, had better be appropriate to the circumstances. 

According to Debrett’s, the sandwiches “must be made properly,” with butter (never margarine!) crusts cut off, and filled with traditional foods like ham, egg, or cucumber. Sticking to tradition with finger sandwiches is critical, we learn, and branching out even into familiar sandwich territory is frowned upon, as the manual warns would-be adventurous hosts: “More lurid concoctions such as peanut butter and jelly,” the etiquette book concludes, “are for children’s parties.”

Photo: Flickr/Hotel du Vin & Bistro

The timing of the meal’s arrival and rise to popularity, as well as the ubiquity of the beverage, make it impossible to divorce a history of afternoon tea from the history of the colonial power that made it what it is today. The meal’s intersection with colonial history is complex: Afternoon tea was an English cultural export brought to colonies around the world, where the tradition was sometimes also adopted by local communities. Occasionally there were local variations to the food (for example, chaat or pakoras instead of finger sandwiches), but the structure of the meal, where a pot of tea and snacks were served during a relaxed sit down meal, remained the same. 

But it also speaks to the horrors that colonial domination imposed on people and landscapes, such as razing Kenyan and Indian land for tea plantations with terrible working conditions, to meet an ever-rising demand for tea.

In many parts of the postcolonial world, afternoon tea is still eaten regularly. And, though there are some exceptions, by and large the menu at many hotels and restaurants is remarkably similar to those early teas with Anna Russell and friends:  Small sandwiches, petits fours, scones, jam, and of course, tea. 

Afternoon tea is not something that, if done properly, can be done in tandem with staring at a screen or doing work. The meal almost went away in the latter part of the 20th century, as contemporary humans, in our constant quest to be busy, opted for grab and go teas and prepackaged snacks.

In the early years of the 21st century, however, afternoon tea has made a resounding comeback, with service in many high end hotels, as well as novelty themed tea services (some with costumes!) and a resurgence in taking afternoon tea at home. And perhaps this is the greatest gift this meal has given us: tea time forces us to slow down a bit, have a snack and, perhaps for just a moment, be present. 🍪

Read These

Pimento Mac and Cheese: This recipe by Paula Forbes is highly intriguing, even for me, president of the Mac & Cheese Apathy Club. I had my first pimento cheese when I was at LA Weekly and the only restaurant we could walk to was Maple Block, a Southern/bbq restaurant. I got the sandwich on white bread at least once a week. Then when the Fremont Diner in Sonoma became Boxcar Fried Chicken, I raced right up there to try all its new pimento cheese dishes. (Very much recommended. Go on a warm, but not hot, day and post up on the lawn furniture.) Anyway, try the recipe, tell me how it goes, and if you want, listen to Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton and me talk about where it came from.

Manly v. Ladylike: I love reading anything that supports the theory that the way Americans eat is, and long has been, dictated by corporations. And it’s not just the food items themselves, of course. It’s our feelings about them. This piece is great, especially the part about teaching women to fear that their men will leave them if they don’t use certain products. It also talks about American women entering the public sphere around the turn of the last century. Listen to the below for more on that (and department store history).

Groundnut Stew: Groundnut and peanut are usually used interchangeably in the U.S., and peanut butter is an excellent stew ingredient, as this Therese Nelson recipe shows. This was discussed in the recent “Boiled Peanuts” episode … I didn’t mean for today’s links to correspond to episodes, but they did, so here you go! -KS

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This newsletter is edited by Katherine Spiers, host of the podcast Smart Mouth.

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