Thursday, August 21, 2014

Teatime Rituals and Outdoor Entertaining

Teatime and evening meals outdoors make a poor family feel rich.

Texas Tea Map
Texas Tea Map

In the 1950s, when I was young , my mother and I sipped tea with lemon on Saturday afternoons under the shade of our mulberry tree. 

We enjoyed lounging on reclaimed, painted-to-match lawn furniture in our little garden like we were English royalty. When neighbors passed and they had time to spare, she invited them for a cup of tea and a cookie. "A cup of tea, a cookie and a smile cost pennies and make a person feel special," she said. It seemed natural for her to transform something or someone without offending or belittling. 

Drinking tea made her feel better and look younger, Littie said. 

Teabag & Cucumber Eye Compress
Teabag & Cucumber 
Eye Compress

"Just because you don't have a lot of money," she said, "doesn't mean you don't deserve to feel good or look good." 

My mother learned many of her teatime practices from a family in our neighborhood whose ancestors had been Chinese immigrants. By the time I knew these people, they were as African American as the rest of us, having been totally immersed within the African American community through marriage. 

However, the forefathers of these Chinese immigrants had told by them the story of their heritage and warned them to preserve what they had been told, lest their historical accounts be lost and forgotten. Chinese contributions were more than teatime. The American West, a historic, glorified and mythologized region of the United States, hardly acknowledges significant presence or recognizes how and why Chinese immigrants arrived, nor documents their diaspora traveling to other regions of the nation such as the Mississippi Delta, making the Chinese American West a story of its own.

After tea, my mother wrapped used teabags in plastic wrap and kept them in the refrigerator. Later, she used them for under-the-eye compresses. "Teabags to get rid of eye bags," she said. We didn't waist anything, even a used teabag. 

My mother reserved her more expensive imported Chinese Japanese teas, which she ordered from catalogs, for occasions when it was just the two of us. 

Don't Toss That Teabag!
They're not Trash!
At the time I was still a child and didn't have under-eye bags and, following my mother's instructions to the tea, I still don't. To this day, I press green tea- or black teabags under my eyes for an afternoon refresher before tossing the tea bags into the trash. My mother was right about tea helping to restore health, being an inducement to meditation and getting rid of bags under the eyes. 

Natural Ways To Get Rid of Bags Under the Eyes

Get Rid of Bags Under the Eyes, Iced Cucumber Slices
Iced Cucumber Slices
Get Rid of Bags 
Under Your Eyes
"Women have been figuring out how to look good with and without no money for centuries," she said. "The older ladies made their own beauty creams before face creams with skin lightening and tightening concoctions came on the market and the old fashioned homemade wrinkle remedies work better than the store bought ones."

Cucumber gel from real cucumbers was one of her specialties. She mixed the cucumber gel with brewed green tea and stored it in glass jars in the refrigerator. Another ritual of outdoor entertainment was bringing out a bowl of very thinly sliced cucumbers in ice. On a hot summer day, it was particularly refreshing to place slices over our eyes as we relaxed and talked. 

Red bird in a tree
On occasion at teatime, my mother brought
art supplies out and painted birds in the tree 
In the backyard relaxing under the mulberry tree sipping tea, we talked about the teatime rituals in a book she bought on how the ancient Chinese and Japanese ceremonies and tea customs that deepened one's understanding of everything. 

My mother was not only very smart, she was practical in her approach to raising me during the Jim Crow era. She knew Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King were out there trying to change things, but she also knew those changes were not going to come immediately. There were so many places African Americans couldn't go and so many things we couldn't do at that time in history, my mother's only recourse was through books and her own imagination. Therefore, she had to devise a method of cultivating me on her own if she wanted to expose me to other cultures. So, under her elegant touch, she turned the simplest occasions, like teatime or eating ice cream, into momentous events. 

Making tea was as important to my mother as taking tea. 

Making Tea 

Photography by Mac Jamieson

Making tea is a serendipitous event. There is no manual that guarantees perfect tea if you follow five easy steps. Read 10 books by tea experts and you will find 10 different procedures and brewing times. The only constant more

Green Tea Flavored Kakigōri 

Although teatime was a ritual my mother honored, she also loved ice cream and often combined the two by making Japanese green-tea-flavored ice cream.

Cool, minty-green tea snow cones were one of my favorites. My mother had no recipe for this treat; she substituted the summertime snow cone man's method--sugar laden, artificially colored, loose street gravel topping--for her own ingredients--crushed ice, Karo Syrup, condensed milk and powdered green tea. 

My mother loved entertaining our neighbors with her inventions. I could write books on my mother's second-hand fix-ups or giving poor relatives and neighbors their first experience with an elegantly set table with fine mostly mix-matched China plates and crystal glasses, proper use of silverware, dinner conversation and indoor plumbing. 

Black Cowboys of Texas 

Littie talked about Saturday Night Suppers at Uncle Tinney's house when she was a young girl living on an isolated Texas farm. 

Uncle Tinney, only one of the black cowboys in our family. There were black cowboys and Indian blood in every family I knew. You could see it in the hair, cheekbones and dark red coloration in the skin. 

Uncle Tinney was married to my grandmother's sister, part Comanche through their father, my great grandfather, who knew about the old way and taught it to his offspring and in-laws of offspring. That could be the way Uncle Tinney learned some of his outdoor cooking techniques.

My mother said, "Uncle Tinny dug in the ground behind the house and lit a slow fire in the hole. Then he placed a whole pig or most of a pig wrapped in corn shucks in the hole and smoked the pig all day Friday. On Saturday just before the supper, he took out the tender meat, falling off the bone. With fresh white bread his wife baked in their outdoor oven, Uncle Tinny made sandwiches to sell at the supper. Everybody from miles around--black, white and brown--came to eat, drink Uncle Tinney's home-brewed beer, listen to Cousin Roy play is guitar and sing out of tune, and kick up dust dancing in the side yard.

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Ojibwa Woman Cooking, An Ethnographic Biography of Paul Peter Buffalo
Ojibwa Woman Cooking
An Ethnographic Biography 
of Paul Peter Buffalo
"My father taught all of us children how to hunt, clean and cook wild meat outdoors," my grandmother said. "That's the old way, the only way when he was a boy. Our people were starving. Wild meat and small game were how we survived because there was no money or store to buy meat. 'And why should you buy meat?' Bigmama's father would ask, 'when you can go out the back door and bag a rabbit or a squirrel, skin it and cook it over an open fire for supper.' So that is what we did," Bigmama said.

Much changed during the period between my grandmother's childhood and mine. When I was a little girl, my mother had a job, not making much money, but some. She said it didn't take a lot of money to transport us to someplace magical. "Everybody needs to have a magical place," she'd say. "All it takes were a few simple things, a little imagination and a nice cup of tea to start things off."

Before Outdoor Lighting, All-weather Lawn Furniture or Air Conditioning

outdoor lights hanging in trees similar to my mother's
Similar to my mother's outdoor lighting

Littie made a makeshift table from a rough wooden door under the mulberry tree in our little garden, and strung white holiday lights on low hanging branches. Our house had no outdoor lighting fixtures, except for a corner street lamp that came on at dusk and went off at dawn, about the time Mr. Hines's roosters began calling for morning into light.

She would decorate that table like it was in a palace or somewhere and you simply forgot you were in the low-end part of town that still had unpaved streets. Nothing matched, but she didn't care. Nothing had to match to make it elegant.

Portable Suitcase
Record Player

To complete outdoor entertaining, Littie brought out a record player she had bought at a yard sale. 

This old fashioned portable suitcase music machine was our third second-hand record player. Our first portable suitcase music machine only played large thick plastic 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) disks. Our second record player had two speed--78 rpm and 45 rpm for playing the smaller disk with the big hole in the middle. This suitcase music machine was deluxe as far as we were concerned because it had three speeds--78, 45 and 33 rpm. The 33 rpm was the latest. It played LPs (long playing), albums as they were called, the largest disks. 

My mother needed this new 33 rpm format to play her new LPs, albums as they were called. She connected the machine to power in the kitchen and brought the machine to the back door in the evening to lilt music of her favorite jazz artists, like Kenny Burrell or The Dave Brubeck Quartet. As soon as the studio released the music in 1959, she bought Dave Brubeck's album, Time Outjust to get the hit single, Take Five.

Similar to my mother's outdoor table setting
With music in the background, Littie went about covering the old door with a crisp bed sheet substituting for a  white linen tablecloth and laying out the goodies. Neighbors--often invited to our backyard gatherings--were required to bring their own chairs and sometimes they brought a little something to offer at the meal. 

"You can't throw an outdoor supper and let your friends stare from their yards," Littie said. "If you don't have something to offer them, keep your supper inside, no matter how hot it gets in there!"

My mother shared without expectations that our neighbors would reciprocate, not because they had less than we had. Some of them had as much or more. But most people don't know how to make a party out of next to nothing like my mother did. Few people I have ever known were as organized in planning anything as my mother. And no one I have ever known has been as sharing as my mother. I learned a lot from her but I wish I had learned more about generosity and grace. People just don't think like my mother, even me. 

Climbing Red Roses
Climbing Rose Garden
Many neighbors thought we were rich, but we were poor, too. My mother made up the difference by conducting our lives with style. Because of her, we were rich and we lived elegantly, complete with fresh floral arrangements cut from Littie's flower garden. At the front of the house on each side of the steps leading up to the porch, there were Easter Lilies; on either side of the porch, there were red roses climbing on the porch supports and banisters, white and yellow roses down below in the beds, and other colorful flowers and fruit trees blooming around the yard every spring and summer. 

Learn Outdoor Table Arranging
Learn Outdoor Table Arranging
never wondered, when I was a child, how my mother provided--no invented--so much with so little. I just took it all for granted. She knew how and, without making a big fuss, gave me a great life. I remember outdoor entertainment at Littie's looking something like this outdoor setting. 

My mother got so good at outdoor entertaining, grilling and creating recipes she could have written a book. Instead, she went to college and studied nutrition. 

When summer comes, hot sweet evening air stirs memories of Littie's outdoor entertaining suppers. As much as I miss her, I never want those memories to fade and as long as there is summer, they never will.


Thank you for visiting. 

Please come again. 

    Bigmama Didn’t Shop  At Woolworth’s  Sunny Nash

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Sunny Nash author of bigmama didn't shop at woolworth's
Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash is an author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations. She writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking. Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement.

Sunny Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations. Nash's book is also listed in the Bibliographic Guide for black studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

© 2014 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. 
~Thank You~

Sunny Nash – Race Relations in America

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