Finger Bowls, High Tea and Homage to an Aunt

Recently I was at dinner with my daughter in Victoria and the restaurant had something I don’t see often or, at least, not in places that aren’t super “fancy” or where you’re eating something like crab that gets you messy: they brought out small finger bowls with lemons for cleaning your hands. My daughter looked up at me expectantly, her eyes wide, round like the bowls themselves. It’s for cleaning your hands I instructed her, and then I drifted off into my own childhood revelry.

I think I was about 8 when my aunt Carolyn, who was a successful broadcast journalist, took me and my mother and father to what would turn out to be one of my most memorable dinners. She was living in Pittsburgh at the time, and we went to The Tin Angel, an “upscale” restaurant high on a cliff with views of the river. This was fine dining early 80s style, formal, with linen napkins folded into intricate shapes, and menu choices along the lines of Filet Mignon and Dover Sole, revealed when waiters dramatically removed the lids covering the dishes in unison. (I’m not sure what the restaurant is like now.)

I recall being dressed up and enchanted by the dimly-lit expanse, the view, the sheer drama of the night…the finger bowls with lemon.

Without a second thought, I picked my bowl up and began sipping the water. This was immediately followed by laughter at the table, and I was gently told that these were meant for your hands, not drinking. I don’t remember if I felt embarrassed or not; I think I was too struck by the thrill of my first “occasion” restaurant to care. I grew up in a small, rural town so this was real big city stuff to me. Though the restaurant is the kind I go out of my way to generally avoid these days, back then it felt like an entrée into a rare and magical world.

I ordered lobster bisque for the first time and marveled at the rich flavor of the sherry (not knowing then what sherry was and that the taste I was experiencing derived from it). I just knew it didn’t taste like anything ordinary. That dinner is, I think, what firmly cemented in me the thrill of eating out. It also reminds me of my aunt, who died just a few years ago from early-onset Alzheimer’s, and how much a part she played in my passion for travel and food.

A few years after that night, my aunt took me on first trip abroad – to London for a week. I went on my first theater outings; to the opening of Cats and Little Shop of Horrors, and saw Peter O’Toole in Pygmalion. I got my first period during the intermission of Pygmalion and, when I shyly told my aunt, I remember her giving me a tender hug. She never had any children of her own, but she knew just how to handle a teenager thrown into puberty an ocean away from her mother.

On that trip, she also took me to my first High Tea at Claridge’s where, once again, I was in awe of the decadence of the interior, the ritual of the meal, the crust-less finger sandwiches, the scones and clotted cream, the rose tea. Where had these delicious things been for 13 years?!

My aunt and I would share so many more wonderful meals together over the years; later, when she moved to San Francisco we’d go to The Fog City Diner, one of the first sophisticated, trendy diners of its kind. We’d cook my grandmother (her mother’s) shrimp ‘n grits at her California home, with help from my own mom. We’d eat crumpets and lemon curd for breakfast, head into Mill Valley for a casual lunch. Always, the meals were the backdrop on which I admired my aunt’s deep intelligence and savored the opportunity to talk to her and get advice as a young woman with my own career aspirations. I didn’t have a lot of female role models. She was also the non-judgmental adult with whom I could share relationship struggles of the sort I might not feel completely comfortable confiding to my mother.

Before my aunt died, she still relished delicious food, even as her ability to maneuver it successfully declined. Back in Pittsburgh, she’d take herself out for lunch dressed as stylishly as ever, the kind staffs of her favorite places aware of her disease and graciously helpful. Eventually, she could eat only with her fingers, like a child—which pained my family terribly. When I last saw her, she’d come to New York to see my daughter, then only over a year old, for the first time. Her condition had worsened; conversation was challenging and she needed someone’s arm to walk. Still, we went to Afternoon Tea. This time, Japanese style at The Tea Box in Takashimaya. This time with her needing my help to use her utensils, and frequently losing her train of thought mid-sentence.

Afterwards, I navigated her through the aisles at Takishimaya, where she bought my daughter a beautiful cranberry-colored dress with black velvet buttons and a mandarin collar. It no longer fits her but I keep it folded neatly in a box. My daughter has no memory of meeting my aunt but, even sadder, will never get the chance to know her. Had my aunt lived beyond her early 60s, I know she would’ve taken my daughter on wonderful trips and to special dinners. Maybe the three of us would’ve gone back to London together, and she could have experienced her first High Tea where I did. Instead, I took my daughter to her first Tea at the Fairmont hotel in Seattle last year, my aunt then gone but with us in spirit.

I’m really thankful for those finger bowls in Victoria for bringing back so many memories, and for reminding me of all of the new ones I’m making with my daughter. She laughed vigorously when I told her how I slurped up the lemony water—and I know that moment is a gift.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow