Tea and Chromosomes

Buckingham Bee
2179 Fourth St., White Bear Lake; (651) 653-9533
British Cream teas served 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; reservation-only Brass Bell teas served Friday and Saturday 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.; call for information on occasional Sunday theme teas.

Murray's
26 South Sixth St., Mpls.; (612) 339-0909
High tea served Monday to Friday 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Café Latte
850 Grand Ave., St. Paul; (651) 224-5687
High tea served daily 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Sometimes when it's a slow news day and the other writers are holed up in the conference room throwing luaus, or seances, or luau-seances, where they summon the ghosts of Don Kalana and the Tahitians and make them sing "Bali Ha'i"--sometimes it does a girl good to take stock of things. For example, I have been carting around a pair of X chromosomes for I don't know how long. Down through the frozen-foods section. Out to the lake. Through the airport metal detectors. Everywhere I go, they go too, and what have they ever done for me? Hitchhikers! Layabouts!

With a different set of chromosomes, life would be easier. Statistically, I'd earn more. Chanel wouldn't snare me like a roach on a glue trap every time they introduce a new mascara. Most important, I'd understand Skater Pain, the underground video that recently came over my transom.

Skater Pain is aptly named. It contains about two zillion fast-paced scenes of skateboarders pancaking their flesh upon unforgiving surfaces. Faces on steps. Crash. Shoulders on curbs. Clunk. Heads on asphalt. Swoosh-squash. Most prominent, and most impressive, gonads on banisters. Slam. Again and again and again, fleshy bits of teenage boys make violent contact with architecture.

And I ask, from my X-chromosome-tinged ignorance: Why? Why would anyone do this? I think if you showed a roomful of women a tape of a sport and said: This sport, why, this sport will require frequent belly flops on concrete and your parents' health insurance, few would participate. What gives?

To understand the world, you must first understand yourself--or at least that's what the fortune cookies say. So I set out to understand the extremes of the X chromosome. I set out to a land far, far away, all the way past St. Paul. All the way north of 694. A land where teddy bears rule.

If you have never walked down the streets of downtown White Bear Lake, let me warn you: The town is full of fuzzy-wuzzy white bears. Big white bears, little white bears, WBs wearing hats, WBs requiring corrective lenses, WBs wearing jaunty scarves, lone WBs, and WBs posed in sociable groups, doubtless discussing a WB mutiny. White Bear Lake is more than a town: It's a motif, a cuddlesome-wuddlesome eight-year-old girl's dream come true.

I was in White Bear Lake to take tea at the Buckingham Bee, a small space tucked deep inside a movie theater-turned-mall. British Cream teas (tea, a scone, Devonshire cream, and a choice of shortbread cookies or a lemon bar, all for $6.95) are served daily from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but the more extravagant "Brass Bell" formal teas ($12.95) are offered only Fridays and Saturdays and require reservations.

I arrived for my Brass Bell midafternoon, and the tiny, windowless space was buzzing. A woman, wearing a bonnet and possessing painstakingly pretty enunciation, explained the details: Choose a tea variety out of a half-dozen possibilities, and a pot of the loose, brewed tea appears with a tea cozy, a tea strainer, a bowl of sugar, a little spoon, and a pretty little creamer. Faceted water glasses join the vase of fake flowers on the table; when you're ready to proceed, you either ring the actual brass bell that sits next to the flowers or wait for the lady with the lovely consonants to return.

But first we had to admire the china, which is worth the trip in itself, all beautifully mismatched antique cups and saucers. Squarish pots with gold accents, tall pots with feet, stubby pots painted with roses; jewel-accented cups, embellished with miniature posies, suspended from bird-bone-thin handles. Oh for cute! My double-X girlie heart leapt.

The precious little courses arrived. First, the non-pastries: Little crustless bread rectangles covered with a parmesan spread; wee crustless cucumber sandwiches; cheerful pineapple-kiwi toothpick skewers; and itsy-bitsy cherry tomatoes stuffed with mustard-egg cream. While nibbling, I glanced around at the dozen-or-so tables; all were filled with (mostly) ladies, including a clutch of thirtysomethings in vintage hats and an adorable trio of a mother and two ten-year-oldish girls in contemporary, ribbon-trimmed hats.

I have hats! I could have worn a hat! If I had known it was a hat party, I'd have hatted! (Now I see my future: I must author an underground video to go head-to-head with Skater Pain. It will be called Sipper Hat, and will feature snippets of chapeau descending on brunette! Ah. Pillbox adjusting on redhead! Oooh. Veil settling on blonde! Mmm.)

Next was the scone course: Two scones for each guest, and glass bowls on the table filled with thick, excellent strawberry preserves and Devonshire cream--the thick, unsweetened paste one gets by boiling unhomogenized cream. The scones were hard, crumbly, and very good, except for one that contained artificially cherry-flavored chips; they tasted like Chapstick and made the whole pastry inedible. In between scones, one may gaze upon all the little gifty things the Buckingham Bee also sells--teapot picture frames, teapot pillows, cutie-pie kitty-cat stickers, little-bittle teaspoons, eensy-weensy gift bags, ootsie-bootsie ickle-wickle la la la la...Oops, sorry.

The final course was the cutest of all--a three-tiered silvery tray of toy-colored petits fours (bite-sized iced cakes), shortbreads, cookies, chocolate candies, and decorative gummy cinnamon hearts. It was darling. Yet, I must admit, even as I admired the impressive display, some part of me was all cuted out and yearning for mannish things: Motor oil. Jackknives. Prostates. Whatever.

But no one promised me a rose garden. No one did. Except that one guy. And all I got out of him was a set of used dentures and a Stutz hubcap. But let's not get into that. Let's get into Murray's, which in the afternoon, clear of steaks and cigars, shows its feminine petticoats.

This pink watered-silk palace of the 1950s is a perfect place for tea, and the mirrored, tasseled, white-glove ambiance is priceless. Here, too, I found a higher-than-average number of hats in the crowd, most notably an Easter bonnet with flowers on a little girl and a white heart-shaped cap with a long white feather on a lady in a lavender suit. At Murray's they serve tea weekdays from 2:00 to 3:30; one can choose à la carte tea options (e.g., just a cup of tea, just a scone), but the high tea is the three-course "Queen's Favorites," which runs $9.95.

Murray's actual tea leaves a lot to be desired--individual pots with Pickwick teabags! Yuck! But the warm, buttery scone was the best I had on my high-tea excursions, as hot and flaky as a Spice Girl in summer. The emerald cucumber sandwiches were sprinkled with dill, the double-decker egg-and-tuna-salad sandwiches were appropriately crustless, and a perfect single orchid was perched in the middle of each plate. My tuxedoed server said it was good luck to eat the pink flower, so I did. It tasted like celery. Such is the magic Murray's works upon you: You lift your faceted, footed water glass, toast the circlet chandeliers, and eat a corsage.

For the final course, the server brought out a tray of pastries; I picked what he claimed was a "cannoli," actually a praline tube filled with whipped cream--good in a sugar-rush sort of way--and the worst strawberry tartlet imaginable: It tasted exactly like perfume. I liked the flower better.

My final stop was at Café Latte, where they serve high tea every single day from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. But I made the mistake of going on a Sunday afternoon, and Café Latte on a Sunday afternoon is a nightmare voyage into the decaying heart of the American Dream. (Or at least it's really crowded, and the harried staff shoot daggers with their eyes when you order this pain-in-the-patisserie presentation.) For $9.95 you get a pot of hot water with a tea ball of loose-leaf Taylors of Harrogate, served on a silvery tray with a bowl of sugar packets and a bundled roll of tableware, cafeteria-style. On another doily-covered plate, there's a cold mini-scone, two shortbread cookies, a half-size slice of nut tart or fudge cake, a pair of chocolate hearts, and--Mildred! get the smelling salts!--cucumber sandwiches with their crusts still on.

These disheveled cucumber sandwiches may have been the best-tasting I had, but they were, nevertheless, a scandal. Imagine: Two slices of white bread spread with a red-pepper-and-herb cream-cheese blend, piled high with cucumber slices, then cut into sloppy fours; the disgracefully crusted quarters stacked two together and united in their shame by a toothpick. They were about as ladylike as a big rig jacked across four lanes of traffic.

Intolerable. In fact, coming off the high-tea circuit, I find nearly everything intolerable. Noise. Gears. Ladies without hats. Plates without hearts or flowers. You see, frequent high teas are spectacularly narcotic. They create feelings akin to the ones you'd have upon sliding into a bathtub of warm petroleum jelly. From these soothing emollient shallows, all life looks crude. Not only does it become impossible to conceive of anything as violent as using one's teeth to chew on bread crusts, but the very possibility of skateboarders seems abhorrent.

I started out asking, "Why Skater Pain?"--and now I can only fan myself listlessly and ask: Why, why must this grim, gray earth be so persistently unattractive? Note to Metro Transit:Hand-knit bus cozies would greatly improve the look of your fleet. Note to U S West: Even the plainest telephone pole would be improved by the addition of a few inexpensive doilies. Note to readers: While it might seem obvious that the quickest understanding of teenage boys would be gained by close examination of scones and tea rooms, that common-sense approach has mysteriously proved fruitless.

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