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In Her Words: Christine Muhlke on Tea and Belonging

3 weeks ago by

How is it that my favorite holiday tradition started as a joke? Here’s the setup: All the way back in 2001, I wrote an essay for the men’s magazine Details about how brutal women could be to one another (a.k.a., me). At that point, most of my friends were male, and I had just undergone a nasty, female-led hazing at work that had me in a full crouch. I was in the midst of a divorce, my beloved cousin had just died in the World Trade Center attacks, and I’d left my job. I was seeking both comfort and distraction.

And so, naturally, I was on an intense baking jag. I’d fallen in love with the groundbreaking pastry chef Claudia Fleming’s new cookbook, The Last Course. (Don’t try to Amazon it: Now out of print, a copy fetches hundreds of dollars.) I’d also dog-eared a bunch of party recipes in the December issue of Food & Wine. I announced to the man I was seeing: “I’m going to host a ladies’ tea!” A ladies’ tea?! He laughed. “How many ladies do you know?”

That was the joke: I didn’t have a girl gang. This was a play on that, as well as on the idea of being a “lady” who had “tea.” More than just a prank with finger sandwiches and individual goat-cheese soufflés (what was I thinking?), I wanted to prove that I knew more women than I thought, and that, hey, maybe they liked me back.

I lost myself in the pleasure of list-making, however temporary. Putting together a menu was easy. Jotting down the serving pieces I would need was oddly soothing. When it came to the guest list, however, I hit a wall. Julia, Angela, Christine, Lisa…no, Lisa moved to S.F. Susanna? She was in L.A. Um. Lynn! Jessica? Yes! She’d edited my story, and we had bonded over our mutual gender isolation. I think I sent out ten invitations.

On a sunny December Sunday, 30 minutes before the seven RSVP’d guests were to arrive, I looked with pride at the table I had set. It was the first time I’d needed to use the extension leaf in the Wallpaper*-y glass table my ex and I had bought together. The leaf was arranged with the 1960s tea set I’d brought back from Amsterdam the fall before, as well as my grandmother’s Champagne coupes. I went into the kitchen to slice the tea-cured gravlax and heard a violent crash. The unsecured leaf had flipped over. Everything that had been on it now lay in pieces on the floor. I cried for a second, then called Angela, who lived nearby. A fellow hardcore entertainer, I knew she would have extra glasses.

Angela was there before I knew it, helping me clean and re-set the table. As friends do, I guessed. Though awkward at first — not all of the guests knew one another — the afternoon was a success. All the food was devoured (and the soufflés worked!), and we all stayed and talked long after the end time on the invitation. New friends were made, and conversations begun.

And so I did it again. And again. In fact, the only year I skipped was right after my son was born — and even then, I had to be talked out of it. I don’t think I’m the only one who looks forward to the tea as soon as it gets chilly. I start to think of what I’ll bake. (One important change: While I once tyrannically insisted on making everything, gradually loosening up enough to send select recipes to a few people, I now ask everyone to contribute bubbly or sweets and only make four or five things myself.) I jot down a list of new friends that I feel comfortable enough opening my home to, and briefly allow myself to go to that bitchy place and cross off past guests who haven’t been in touch in the last year. After all: Due to space, I have to cap the invites at 40. I could easily invite twice as many!

Several of the O.G. ladies have been to every tea. Some only see one another on this Sunday, taking their teacups into a corner to catch up for hours. Some who have moved away time their N.Y.C. visits to the tea. New friendships are formed, connections made, glasses and glasses of Champagne (and, sometimes, tea) drunk. The roar of the conversation — and laughter, and joyful shrieking — is like a concert to me. It fills me with joy and a sense of intangible accomplishment that sustains me through the winter. Everyone goes home with leftovers and many dates and contacts added to their phones. The biggest compliment, c. 2017? Everyone was having so much fun, no one even posted.

Last year, a friend convinced me to hire a young artist to help so that I could actually attend my party. I was staggered, and maybe a little intimidated, to see my apartment filled with so many smart, cool, substantial women of all ages. The #metoo tsunami had just been triggered. The energy in the apartment was fierce but warm. It truly felt like a safe space, men essentially having disrupted themselves. “Okay, ladies, we only have three hours to dismantle the patriarchy!” said my friend Vanessa, not entirely joking. The huddles began as soon as the hugs were over, with buzzing clusters forming not just in my living room, but on my bed, on my son’s bed, in the hallways, even the bathroom. The tea had taken on a new level of meaning and, dare I say, importance. I can’t wait to see what happens this year.

Actually, there was another tea-less December. In the fall of 2015, I had separated from my second husband and just moved into a new apartment. My friends convinced me not to host, as it would have been too much to get the apartment ready, and I was being very private about what was happening. Instead, my inner circle — those close enough to know what was going on — came over one December Sunday, when I didn’t have my son. They brought Champagne, scones, tea sandwiches, a drill and picture hangers, houseplants, candles, you name it. In a few short hours, they had hung my art, installed a bathroom shelf, and arranged my son’s room — all the tasks that would have piled up and depressed me. In a few short hours, my friends had made my house a home.

At one point, after the weepy round of toasts, I looked over and saw Liz and Lithe puzzling over the assembly of an IKEA stool. “This is how much we love you,” laughed Liz.

From a joke to a life-support system, I no longer think of ladies’ tea as a party. It’s vibrant proof of the friendships I have built with the most incredible women over the course of almost two decades. And as much as I’ve accomplished in my career during that time, they feel much more significant. And enduring.

Here are a few of my favorite ladies’ tea recipes. (No more soufflés, I promise.)

Port-Glazed Walnuts with Stilton
Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies
Violet Bakery’s Butterscotch Caramel Blondies
Suzanne Goin’s Meyer Lemon Tart

_____

Christine Muhlke is the creator of the Xtine newsletter (subscribe here) and is an editor at large at Bon Appétit. She just turned in a wine guide written with the wine director of Le Bernardin.

7 comments

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  • It’s genuinely helpful to see an example of how women build networks. Thank you.

  • Kristin Odijk November, 26 2018, 6:37 / Reply

    This is beautiful! I do this too and there is nothing like the bonding between like-minded souls on these afternoons. The inspiration for my ladies’ afternoon tea was a friend who was a single mum who invited all the women she wanted to see to and didn’t have the chance too to her home on a Friday night. The difference was that she had close male friends who were the waiters. They dressed in black and white and served Champagne etc throughout the night. None of the men that I knew were interested in serving at my gatherings so I ditched that idea and just invited the women that I wanted to have more time to connect with. The list is getting smaller and it feels right. A couple of years ago when I had breast cancer I invited partners and children too – all of the people that cared so much for myself and my family. This year it was my 50th birthday and a friend bought a sabre and taught me how to slice the top off Champagne bottles. That was fun! I’ll be doing this forever. Thank you for reminding me how special these gatherings are.

  • Female friendships are LIFE! So glad you didn’t give up on them after your bad experience with women.

  • This is so amazing. You have me in tears. I love hearing of women supporting women, of friendships growing and lasting a lifetime. Love this!

  • Jt Covelli December, 2 2018, 10:57 / Reply

    Perhaps the best column of yours I’ve read. Thank you.

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