When you are six years old and invited to a tea party, you have certain expectations. I’d venture to say that you may even have what they call in some circles “needs.”
These needs may include any or all of the following:
- Delightful homemade confections
- Jaunty, colorful decorations
- Other guests (preferably small children. Stuffed animals and dolls are acceptable replacements)
Several months ago, I promised my six-year-old niece a tea party for her birthday. To prepare her for this momentous occasion, I bought her a special book about afternoon tea. Little did I know that my niece (whom we’ll call Noodle), would spend the following weeks memorizing the book, sleeping with it, and carrying it around. Little did I know that this seemingly innocent book was the Mein Kampf of tea party hostesses. And little did I know that somewhere, in the bowels of Brooklyn, a Tea Party Nazi was born.
After a nightmarish week of crushing deadlines at work, I am spent. I figure I can get away with winging the tea party, and in my early morning fantasy, I imagine throwing something fabulous and creative together at the last minute, in the style of a natural-born hostess. When I awake two hours before the big event, I stumble into the kitchen to assess the situation:
- Tea: None.
- Delightful homemade confections: None. Impressed, nevertheless, by the exciting assortment of condiments in Fauxhawk’s refrigerator.
- Jaunty, colorful decorations: Pink flamingo lawn ornament, cat toy.
- Other guests: None. Fauxhawk recruited, cats pressed into service.
This is not a problem, I think. We will take a fun field trip to Key Food! We will bake together! This will be a fun, spontaneous tea party!
No doubt expecting a certain level of ineptitude, my sister-in-law arrives with Noodle, the tea party book, and a children’s cookbook. As we pour through the books, Noodle picks out recipes she wants to try.
“Let’s do this one!” she says. The recipe requires 47 ingredients, cookie cutters of all shapes and sizes, and artistic expertise.
“Um…that one looks kinda hard, Noodle. What about this one?” I point to a rather lame pudding recipe. Noodle looks stricken.
No dice. We are making the cookies from hell.
At the local hardware story, Noodle gamely rummages through a pile of cookie cutters, most of which are bent and unidentifiable. We pick out several, unclear if they are turkeys or paramecia. One appears to be in the shape of a pancreas, but could possibly be a seal or a dinosaur.
“Don’t they have a star? Or a heart?” Noodle asks.
“No. These are special. These are better,” I say weakly.
We return with supplies. While I set out the ingredients, Fauxhawk and Noodle amuse themselves by playing with the other tea party guests: Roy and Verne, Fauxhawk’s cats. Attempting to fetch a cat toy from under the couch, Noodle comes upon the Great Shame. The Great Shame is seven years of discarded cigarette boxes, cigarette box wrappers, junk mail, gum wrappers, take-out menus and an assortment on non-organic items that Fauxhawk likes to toss under his couch in his typical devil-may-care manner.
“WOW!” says Noodle. “We have some stuff under our couch but you have A LOT A LOT of stuff at your house!”
This is not what I imagined when I thought of jaunty and colorful decorations, so I distract Noodle from the junk heap by giving her ingredients to measure. I pretend that baking is not an incredibly stressful and excruciating task. I momentarily forget about “Half-Baked Carrot Cake Surprise,” “Devil’s Food Pancake,” and “Grand Canyon Birthday Crevasse.” I even forget about the Profiterole Debacle of 2007.
At a critical moment in the dough mixing, Fauxhawk runs into the kitchen looking ashen.
“What’s that smell?!” he asks.
“I have no idea.” I cannot have distractions at this particular moment in the dough formation.
“Is there something burning?” he insists.
“I don’t know. The oven is preheating. I’m at a critical moment here – can you just…”
Fauxhawk pushes past us and heads for the oven. Smoke fills the room. Flames leap out of the broiler.
“The oven is on fire!” Noodle exclaims.
“The oven is on fire!” I exclaim.
Fauxhawk puts out the fire and shoots me a dirty look as he exits the smoke-filled kitchen.
“The kitchen was on fire,” Noodle says, matter-of-factly.
“Well, wasn’t that exciting?” I say brightly. We are having a spontaneous, exciting time!
The cookies are taking an awfully long time to bake, so I bring Fauxhawk in for a consultation. We decide, together, to crank up the heat. I say “together” because I feel I should not take all of the blame for the result of this decision. In minutes, the M&Ms explode into a gooey mess, the dough spreads out into strange, blob-like shapes. The cookies look like roadkill. They are terrifying.
Hoping for the best, I serve frozen pizza, a popular tea-time snack. Noodle takes one bite and a landslide of piping hot cheese sears the flesh on her chinny-chin-chin.
“Oh shit!” I say, in a natural-born hostess voice. Noodle looks long-suffering as I apply ice cubes to her face.
This is not going well. There is a fire. My niece is a burn victim. The cookies look like they’ve already been eaten and regurgitated.
Mercifully, Noodle eats them anyway and recovers her good spirits. She notes, however, that “they do not look like the ones in the book.”
When it's time to go, I collect her stuff and we hop into a taxi back to her house.
“We had a tea party!” Noodle tells the taxi driver.
“Oh yeah? What did you do?”
“THERE WAS A FIRE!” she pipes in.
“Oh no!” says the taxi driver.
“AND I BURNED MY CHIN!”
“Now wait a second…" I say. "It was only a little kitch…”
It’s too late. The driver already thinks I am the kind of person who leaves her kids in the car and lets them bake for hours.
“Noodle,” I say. “We need to work on our messaging before we get to your house.”
“It’s what you’re going to say to your parents. Things like ‘the cookies were really good!’ and stuff like that.”
“Noodle, I’ll give you a nickel if you don’t tell them about the fire. Or the cigarette boxes under the couch.”
She pauses. “Okay,” she says finally.
We get to the door where my sister-in-law is waiting, looking amused.
“How was the tea party?” she asks Noodle, who looks somewhat relieved to be home.
“THE COOKIES WERE REALLY GOOD!” she says.
Good girl. Very good.
And then, in a stage whisper, she calls back:
“CAN I HAVE MY NICKEL?”
Illustration by Julie Morstad.