Tea Time

Tea for Two

To the Tea: Manners maven Dana May Casperson is a firm believer in the quiet elegance of teatime.

Photo by Janet Orsi

Savoring the agony of the leaves

By David Templeton

DANA MAY CASPERSON has come to tea. Breezing in to the Independent‘s cluttered reception area, she carries herself with an air of culture and sophistication most of us here have not observed or attempted since last year’s Christmas party. And as I recall, no one showed up that evening wearing a hat like the classic, flower-bedecked adornment that Ms. Casperson sports today.

As she is escorted to the lunchroom at the rear of the building, her hat actually appears to be forming a fan club, snapping up adulations from several members of the staff. In keeping with her station as a manners maven, Ms. Casperson responds to each new praise as if it were the first time she’d heard it, warmly replying, “Well, thank you,” adding, somewhat conspiratorially, “I have come to tea, you know.”

Known variably as “Ms. Etiquette” and “Miz Tea”–Dana May Casperson is the founder of Everyone’s Cup of Tea and of the Professional Resource Institute of Etiquette and Protocol, in Santa Rosa. She has earned a steadfast reputation as one of the nation’s leading experts in the field of etiquette and good manners, placing a special emphasis on the recently resurrected ritual of taking tea. A trainer within the hotel, restaurant, and bed & breakfast industries, for which she teaches the nuances of tea service, she is in demand around the world for her lectures and seminars.

At home in Santa Rosa, Ms. Casperson has come to the aid of countless parents with her manners classes for children and teens, offering instruction on everything from handshakes and introductions to table setting, dining skills, and appropriate behavior at the theater.

After a three-minute phone conversation with Ms. Casperson–during which she made taking tea sound so civilized and simple–I found myself inviting her to a tea party, even though I prefer to drink strong coffee, had never hosted a formal tea party, and indeed had never even been to such a thing. It seemed the proper thing to do.

And here we are.

The lunchroom is understatedly decorated with a redwood picnic table, elegantly covered with a green vinyl tablecloth. I’ve spruced it up with a sprig of something flowery that I tore from a tree hanging over the parking lot. The table is set with a mix of Bavarian china left to me by my grandmother, a teapot with matching ceramic cups and saucers, mismatched metal and plastic flatware scrounged from around the office, and a whimsical sugar-and-cream set shaped like a cabbage and a bunny rabbit.

Having gleaned just enough from Jane Austen movies to know that snacks are a must, I’ve obtained a number of decadent treats. The forks and paper napkins are arranged in a manner I chose after quizzing the first five people to walk into the room.

“How nice everything looks,” Ms. Casperson exclaims kindly, as I invite her to sit down on a redwood bench.

After a few minutes of civilized chatting, it is time to make the tea.

Yikes. No stove. My calico-cat teakettle has no place to work. How could I not have noticed that?

“Um,” I cringe, “as a tea expert, what would you do if faced with a choice between microwaving your water or taking it from the hot-water side of the water cooler?”

“Let’s find a third choice!” she laughs. “There is a way to make a perfect cup of tea. Today certainly doesn’t have to be the big fancy spiel, but to eke out the best flavor of the leaves, the water needs to come to a boil, so you have to heat it up to 212 degrees. It’s called ‘the agony of the leaves,’ the moment when the tea releases its richest flavor.”

I am experiencing a different form of agony. How can I serve tea made with leaves insufficiently tortured? The party is saved when our associate editor runs to the Mexican restaurant next door for a pot of boiling water.

That was a close one.

“It is probably a good thing that much of the minutiae and endless details of tea serving has been lost,” Casperson suggests later, after the tea (Earl Grey, “a splendid afternoon tea”) has been steeped the requisite five minutes and I have been coached in the art of pouring: ladies first, then myself, lifting the saucer–not just the cup–to the pot. “After all, there are more important things to be concerned with than how to hold the teacup and whether you stick your pinky out or not. If you want to be fussy-dussy about it–if you were going to have tea with the Queen of England–I suppose those are considerations you should know. But tea is more about conversation and civility than it is about rules.” As I am now deftly demonstrating.

“On the other hand,” she continues, having finished a dainty bite of her cake, “we live in a world full of phone messages and e-mail and faxes; we are becoming layered with more and more reasons to communicate. And taking tea brings us back the times that you sit down with people and you talk, and you appreciate the plates that grandmother gave you, and you appreciate the cakes that came from a nice bakery.

“You just add some civility to your life, because we’re losing it.”

Ms. Casperson tells of taking tea as a child with her grandmother, who would improvise a veranda setting on her Healdsburg roof, and of sipping afternoon tea with her mother, who used the civilized setting to casually induce her teenaged children to tell her what was going on in their lives.

“As we pull closer to the millennium, we are a bit fearful, I think,” Ms. Casperson continues, setting down her cup. “That’s why I think you see a re-embracing of things from our past, things that give us comfort, things that give us a connection to each other and to our roots.

“Things like tea,” she smiles. “I’m so delighted you invited me.”

From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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