29 Tea

Aware that social graces are slipping the way of 140-character messages and strings of acronyms, I decide that my daughters (ages 7 and 3) need a preemptive strike of civility.

I think it’s high time we drink in the culture of a proper teahouse, which we find on a recent getaway to Lufkin. My mom joins us for a tri-generational tea party at Milagros Tea House & Gifts, which operates from a 1920s sea-gray frame house on the edge of the city’s historic district. Complete with a picket fence surrounding its tree-shaded grounds, Milagros evokes the relaxed gentility of the English countryside.

Milagros serves far more than tea, and in fact features a full menu of brunch, lunch, and afternoon-tea items. Milagros Tea House & Gifts is at 135 E. Denman Ave. in Lufkin. Call 936/637-0809.

Milagros doesn’t serve dinner, so we won’t be having “high tea”—an often-misunderstood term that refers to a hearty after-work meal served on high tables. And though we arrive before noon, our meal isn’t technically “elevenses,” either, since that form of tea consists of a light morning snack, such as a biscuit with honey. No, we’re here for a Texas-style “lunch tea” (by reservation only) of sandwiches and sweets similar to what the Brits consider “low tea”—though across the Atlantic you’re likely to see this served in the afternoon.

Convoluted terminology aside, we’re joining a long line of tea enthusiasts. Legend says that humans have been sipping tea since 2737 BCE, when Chinese Emperor Shen Nong discovered its pleasures by accident when camellia leaves fell into his pot of boiling water. The East maintained its exclusive hold on tea until 1662, when Catherine of Braganza wed England’s King Charles II and popularized tea in Britain. Once tea crossed the Atlantic, Americans put their own spin on the beverage, often serving it over ice and sweetened with sugar.

After passing through a gift shop offering hundreds of varieties of loose-leaf teas and boxes of silk-infuser bags, along with accessories such as teacups, teapots, trays, and decorative spoons, we make our way to a table in one of the teahouse’s four dining rooms. Three are decorated with lace tablecloths, fresh flowers, Victorian-style art, and antiques, but one room—the burgundy-walled Rooster Room—has been outfitted with men (and children) in mind, with plaid drapes, rooster-themed valances, and French doors for sound insulation.

We sit in the Fireplace Room—its buttery yellow interior enhanced with antique plates and a curio cabinet filled with vintage crystal stemware. When owner Mona Hill notices my daughter rocking an antique doll resting in a carriage beside the fireplace, she mentions that many children bring their own dolls to tea, and that she keeps a stash of booster seats so that the dolls can join girls at the table.

Our table features red placemats accented with antique ivory lace. Gloves rest at each place setting, and the girls delight in choosing between vintage blush-hued opera-length gloves and shorter black lace ones. We each receive a small white teapot filled with our choice of 30 teas, and we drink from mismatched cups of various origins.

The girls sip cold strawberry hibiscus tea (with a dash of Sprite for bubbly fun) from pink, heart-shaped teacups; and my mom and I sample a few hot varieties, comparing the creaminess of Coconut Chocolate Truffle with the light, earthy flavor of Tupelo Honey Fig. As I sip from a teacup painted with blue and yellow orchids, Hill mentions that the cup had belonged to a customer who frequented Milagros with her daughter. One day, the daughter came to tea alone, bearing a box of china teacups. “I think Mom would want you to have these,” she said, as she informed Hill of her mom’s passing.

Milagros serves far more than tea, and in fact features a full menu of brunch, lunch, and afternoon-tea items, including gluten-free options and hearty fare like chicken enchiladas. We adults share a sampler called the Taste of Milagros, a feast of spinach and bacon quiche, creamy broccoli salad, a house salad studded with fruit and feta cheese, and a classic Waldorf salad with butter lettuce, apples, sliced celery, and toasted walnuts. The girls munch on Nutella sandwiches, grilled cheese bites, and a fruit medley served in pink Depression-glass parfait glasses. And we finish our meal with Milagros’ famous chocolate cobbler—a rich concoction of cocoa and butter topped with whipped cream and served in petite crystal demitasse cups.

As the girls lick the last crumbs of cobbler—their chocolate-smeared faces indicating an etiquette lesson still in progress—Mom and I smile and think how lovely it would be to enjoy teatime together more often. Hill encourages us to adopt the practice at home, and so we revisit the gift shop on our way out. I breathe in the floral notes of China Lemon Rose and the spicy aroma of Organic Red Upaya before selecting anise-heavy Chelsea Chai and marigold-studded Summer Royal. With our new stash of fine tea, I look forward to replicating the tea experience at home with my family.

From the September 2014 issue

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