Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn
By Jan Whitaker
St. Martin's Press, 2002
Within a 45-minute drive of my home, there are four different eating establishments that have billed themselves as tea rooms. At Mary Mac's Tea Room in Atlanta, open since 1945, diners can get everything from a vegetable plate to meatloaf, fried chicken and classic southern desserts. At the Zodiac Cafe in Neiman Marcus in Atlanta, the store's tea room tradition continues and you can find tasty light luncheon fare such as a salmon salad or fresh popovers. Closer to home, Sharpsburg's Jasmine Tea Room, located in an antique mall, has delicious muffins, quiches and sandwiches, all served in homelike, attractive surroundings. And of course there's my wonderful English style tearoom, Holly Cottage in Newnan, where I will be dining today, in fact!
Now how, you may ask, can such different restaurants all claim "tea room" status? For the answer, just crack open Jan Whitaker's fine book, Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America. Whitaker is the sort of historian I love to read, one with a passion for her topic and the talent to share it without coming off as too academic or wonkish. This book is immensely readable, and it provided lots of eye-opening moments. I love reading anything to do with women's history, and I had never thought about the fact that operating a tea room was an "acceptable" career for a woman back when most women did not work outside the home. Whitaker says tea rooms began to appear at the turn of the last century, and by the 1920s there was a "full-blown craze" for them. The book is also a bit of a tea room scrapbook because it includes so many pieces of tea room art: old postcards, menus, matchbooks, advertisements. I am convinced *this* is the woman who was beating me out of all that stuff on eBay years ago. (And good for her, based on the result!)
Whitaker answered a great many of the questions I've had as well as a few I never knew to ask. Here are some of the tidbits I noted:
-- "Women formed an estimated 60 percent of restaurant patrons by the mid-1920s, up from about 20 percent in 1917." (That figure surprised me!)
-- "Especially popular were sets of glass dishes in green, pink, amber, and clear produced for tea rooms by the Indiana Glass Company from 1926 to 1931. In a tiered art deco pattern called Tea Room, the line included a great variety of pieces, such as plates and cups, pickle dishes, platters, glasses, sugars and creamers, candlesticks, vases, lamp bases, and a range of ice cream service dishes." (Hey, I just started collecting Tea Room pieces!)
-- "Salads, called 'the thinking woman's luncheon, and the university girl's dessert,' were also popular attractions in tea rooms. Salad did not typically mean greens until after the Second World War ..." (Who knew!)
Reading about the early tea room food was one of the things I most enjoyed about the book, though I am still debating whether I am brave enough to actually try Creamed Chicken on Waffles, Tomato Aspic or "Egg Surprise."
This was a book I hated to see end, but I turned the final page and was consoled by one happy thought: Whitaker has also written a history of American department stores called Service and Style, and it's at the top of my reading list!