Marie Antoinette and her French posse were known to take breaks from oppressing peasants for afternoon tea. The leisurely ritual fell somewhere in between lunch and dinner, and was accompanied by tiny sandwiches and frivolity.
Antoinette and most of the aristocracy wound up getting their heads chopped off, but Tamara Read, owner and founder of the Chantilly Tea Room, insists that afternoon tea usually leads to good things.
"Afternoon tea really binds people," says Read, who opened the Chantilly Tea Room about seven years ago. "It is a connective ritual."
The longstanding tradition of afternoon tea is often associated with the British, but letters by French aristocrat Madame de Sévigné claimed that tea actually made its first fashionable debut in Paris in 1636. The tradition is still upheld at highbrow lounges such as The Ritz Hotel in London, though it is now more of a weekly indulgence rather than a daily event.
This extravagance lives on today—in the middle of the desert.
I decided that I must experience this for myself.
The pink building is set back from busy Oracle Road. There is a pastel glow in the gazebo entryway, which is filled with delicate and flowery tea sets. I pick up a children's book called Now I Am a Princess. It is pink.
A ladylike roar of gossip echoes along the wood floors and all the way up to the chandeliers.
A waitress brushes past me carrying a three-tier masterpiece of scones, sandwiches and pastries. I learn that these are part of the Duchess Afternoon Tea, which requires 24-hour notice.
"Wow, what is that? I want that!" I exclaim to Jacque, my smiley, silvery-haired hostess.
"Oh, my dear, I want you to have it!" Jacque says to me. "I want you to have everything wonderful!" (Note to Jacque: I like you.)
Read says that she fell in love with the afternoon-tea ritual at the age of 9, when her parents took her and her sister to the Plaza Hotel in New York for tea. She received a master's degree in education and spent time studying law, but the draw of opening her own tea room was always there.
She's traveled the world to experience afternoon tea in many places, collecting antiques and ideas along the way to give her shop an "authentic European vintage feel." Nearly 100 different teas are imported from all over the world. The selection includes traditional herbal and English blends, and more exotic oolong China teas.
For the month of October, the featured flavors are pistachio twist and herbal prickly pear. Both seem worthy, but I decide to try the vanilla cream organic rooibos. I allow the tea to steep, and then I handle the pot like a newborn baby. Should a drop escape onto the pristine white doilies—well, I'm not sure I could survive the embarrassment.
This is not to say that the atmosphere is stuffy, but there is a sense of propriety that emanates from the "slacks and dresses" attire that Read suggests to her customers. At the same time, she says she understands the "Tucson casual" style that the desert can't shake. She recalls a group of bicycle riders who recently stopped in during their ride—in helmets and spandex.
Children are welcome, too. Read offers a mad-hatter tea event in which kids can dress up in costumes that she provides. Birthday parties, bridal showers, fundraisers and other special events are held on Sundays.
Regulars, including the women's Red Hat Society, frequent Chantilly for the atmosphere, which Read says is unlike any place in Tucson.
"It's like an event when people come," she says. "I get a lot of letters from people saying that they felt at home here."
The unspoken consensus among regulars is to check their cell phones, Blackberries and stresses at the door, so the workday can be replaced by chitchat and sugar cubes.
"You pause, stop and relax," says Read. "People come here to have that ambience, and I feel very flattered and delighted that people like to come here."
As for my tea-accompanying meal, I can say that the "pink salad" is the best pink food ever to grace my palate. Better, even, than pink Starbursts.
I bid a bittersweet farewell to hostess Jacque, to which she replies, "I am so truly glad you came in today!"
Now I do feel like a princess. Read has created a place for ordinary people to experience what was once reserved royalty.
Hopefully, the people of Tucson won't let it go to their heads like Marie Antoinette did.