Tea With a Twist

Golden brown, translucent liquid, hot or cold, strong or weak, black or brewed from exotic, aromatic herbs: tea has recently captured our collective imagination. Americans, unlike most of the rest of the world, still tend to prefer coffee--strong, and plenty of it--but who can deny that tea offers so much more in terms of ritual, comfort, and elegance? Hot or iced, graced with milk and sugar and earthy spices or nothing other than a dainty wedge of lemon, tea is turning up everywhere (a collection of tea houses and specialty shops have recently opened up in town to prove this).

But long before tea was hot, Elaine Sommer, of Center City, Minnesota, has been brewing it, pouring it, enjoying it, and passing that appreciation on to her four children. And when she was still too little to make it herself, her mother and her grandmother fixed it for her. "It was part of growing up for as far back as I can remember," says Elaine. "My grandmother claimed that tea wouldn't stunt my growth."

Now, Elaine, a (suspiciously petite) woman with warm blue eyes and a beautiful smile, is turning her love of tea into a business enterprise full of imagination and generosity. This past summer, she and her close friend Diane Whiting, from the neighboring town of Shafer, combined their shared talents and energies to launch "Proper Teas: Refreshment and Mystery Events" at Diane's impressive Victorian home. They've already been hosting teas just for the fun and fulfillment of it in Diane's elegant parlor for several years running: teas meant to "refresh" and "comfort" guests, mostly women, and then more recently, a June tea held to raise funds for NAMI [National Association of the Mentally Ill] of Ramsey County. "The fundraiser was a terrific success," says Diane. "We raised the money and had a good time while we did it."

Now, the two women hope to make a business of inviting mothers, daughters, and granddaughters for teas that connect and celebrate the generations; they look forward to serving children--little girls and boys dressed in their finest finery--teas for birthday parties and extra-special occasions; and they'd also like to attract small groups of coworkers for teas that build trust, camaraderie, and teamwork.

Here's where I ought to back up and admit that I know more about Elaine than her penchant for a warm cup. During my family's seven years in Center City, that intense, mystifying, unforgettable period of really becoming a family, Elaine was our next-door neighbor. When we moved in to our home on December 28 and didn't have any appliances, Elaine showed up with a huge pot of hot corn chowder and fresh corn bread. The next day, her nine-year-old twins bounded over and introduced themselves, chattering away as I juggled my four-month-old in one arm and boxes in the other. Such was the start of a neighborly friendship that always amounted to many times more than the total sum of the time we spent together: Elaine taught my children about edible flowers and the benefits of bees, and she taught me about being a mother and about the strength and depth of the human spirit through her quiet example. Plus, she never let on that she minded what a wreck our yard was compared to her gorgeous, overflowing English gardens. Sometimes, as I set my kids' breakfast on the kitchen table, I'd look past the black walnut tree outside our kitchen window, over the lush rows of hydrangeas between our yards, and stare at Elaine's sunroom, picturing her curled up there with a cup of tea and a book, and it soothed my own nerves. Naturally, when she told me she and Diane were starting a business hinged on refreshing the spirits of others, I had to share their story (plus, I suspected it would get me a tour of Diane's house, which my husband, John, and I had secretly ogled during all of the years we lived in Center City).

The three most important things I learned about Proper Teas are: first, that Proper Teas can be tailored to suit almost any desire--Elaine, a trained chef, makes all the food from scratch, and the mystery can be suitable for children or adults. Second, Proper Teas are served in one unbelievably funky Victorian house with secret nooks and crannies, princess rooms, hand-painted murals, meandering gardens with stone walkways, beautiful trellises, fountains, and wicker-furnished patios--and just between you, me, and Diane, a little hot glue and magic marker where it's called for to maintain the effect (that's all I'm going to tell you now, but if you visit for a tea, do ask Diane about her cost-saving decorating tips). Third, Proper Teas require proper manners, but if you should happen to forget yours, all can be made well again if you simply call out, "A thousand pardons! I've been most revolting!"

This line comes from the British cartoon Mrs. Fishbourne's Guide to Table Etiquette--which Diane fell for several years ago when traveling in England with Elaine, whose close friend, Christine, lives there. "I think I was seven years old when Christine and I first became pen pals," Elaine recalls. "We finally met when we were in college, and we've always stayed close. Her family is like family to me." While that trip to England was Diane's first, Elaine has traveled in England and Europe extensively. Both women love the English countryside and the comfort to be found in its customs. Some of the tea sets that adorn every room in Diane's twenty-one room home are sets she brought home from England. She also brought back a heightened fondness for fancy, candied cakes and polished etiquette.

Her attempts at the candied cakes have been beautiful but largely inedible, and she admits the etiquette part doesn't always fly. "I just can't seem to remember when to pour, or when to refill trays," Diane laments. Even her Springer Spaniels, Amy Charlotte and Copper Bob, don't get the manners thing. For example, they persist in sniffing no matter how often Diane tells them it's rude. "But," she reminds me, "Elaine is doing the cooking, and her cakes always turn out, and she is a perfect hostess. Absolutely perfect. I'm sure she's going to be the one who ends up looking good in this story."

Well . . . Elaine is a warm, gracious hostess, and her cooking is divine. She's had many years of practice--as a child on her family's farm, she preferred the chore of cooking to milking cows; she remembers having to stand on a high stool to fry eggs. At the University of Minnesota, she majored in foods and business, and for the past five years she worked as a chef and dietary supervisor at Point Pleasant Heights, an apartment complex for senior citizens. "I especially loved planning special-occasion meals," Elaine says. "I used fresh herbs and edible flowers from my gardens at home to make the meals stand out."

Menus for the Proper Teas are entirely flexible but typically a tea consists of several courses. Savory items include finger salads and seasonal delicacies such as daylilies stuffed with summer salads, vegetable tureens, and tea sandwiches. Sweets include scones with Devonshire cream and homemade jellies, lemon curd, tea cakes, and tarts. And, of course, teas.

Elaine and Diane serve the teas in the ornate dining room with the help of Alyssa, Diane's daughter-in-law, who is the mother of one-year-old Emma, the first Whiting grandchild. Alyssa also writes the mysteries, which take guests all over the house's three stories. Adults will find themselves oohing and aahing over the faded splendor of this turn-of-the-century home, but children will simply flip--this is the stuff seven-year-old girls' dreams are made of: lace and china, canopies and ribbon, old-fashioned hats and dresses hanging in a second-floor hallway, a tea set in every room--and permission to carefully traverse the entire house to solve the mystery.

"It's all a little tongue-in-cheek," says Diane. "It's meant to be fun, not stuffy--just over the top. People seem to like it. When we hosted one group of coworkers who were having some tensions, they said it was the only time they had ever laughed together. And the women's tea we had went over really well," Diane says. "They said they'd been to lots of different teas and this one was the best . . . but then again, they're my friends."

"It's just so wonderful to see moms, daughters, and grandmas enjoying an afternoon together," says Elaine. "And of course, seeing the groups of children having fun together. We love that."

Proper Teas may be scheduled for groups of ten to twelve; costs start at $20 per person for the tea and mystery. For more information or to make reservations, call Diane Whiting at (651) 257-4058.

Jeannine Ouellette Howitz is editor of Minnesota Parent. She readily admits a shameless bias throughout this story, as she has experienced the unparalleled pleasure of Elaine's Christmas cardamom bread for seven years, and, on a few lucky occasions, her incredible pies, pastries, and even crumpets.

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