Afternoon tea and race relations with Dottie and Elsie (near Raleigh)

It’s cold in the cavernous tea room and the riot of floral patterns on the wallpaper, tablecloths, and napkins is soothing even in the Garden of Eden chaos. I’m having High Tea at the little tea room in historic downtown Wake Forest. This creaky old place feels like your Southern granny’s fancy front parlor that no one was ever allowed to sit in. Two white-haired old gals wrapped in pearls and the powerful sweet scent of magnolia perfume are sitting at the table next to me.

I pretend to be reading my Dostoevsky novel but I’m really eavesdropping. They speak in that languorous Southern accent – the one that adds an extra syllable to every word, especially three-letter and four-letter words. “Here” is pronounced “he-ah” and “there” is pronounced “they-ah.” They are talking about the new preacher’s wife and what a terrible job she has done planning the annual Thanksgiving luncheon to be held this Sunday. “Bless her heart”, says Dottie. “She’s got all those people signed up to bring canned cranberry sauce and macaroni and cheese. But hardly anything else.”

“I know!” exclaims Elsie, sipping on her lavender tea. “She should have just asked each one of us in the ladies group to make her particular specialty.” She takes a bite of her crustless egg salad sandwich. “This egg salad isn’t as good as mine. As I was saying. I WOULD have made my pineapple upside down cake. All she had to do was ask.”

“Here, taste my cucumber sandwich,” says Dottie, pushing her plate towards Elsie with her silver tea spoon. “Too much cream cheese. Well, I’m going to make my pimento cheese but I’m not signing any sheet. Pastor loves my pimento cheese.”

“She’s pretty enough, the wife,” says Elsie. “But I don’t think she cooks much. He’s such a handsome man. She’d better take care.”
“Oh Elsie! You’re terrible!” titters Dottie. She slathers Devonshire cream on her butterscotch-walnut scone. “She’s funny. In a fun way, not a crazy Dix Hospital way.” (For those not from North Carolina, Dorothea Dix Hospital is an infamous, now-defunct, old mental institution in Raleigh started in the 1800s and only recently closed. Old folks refer to it as “Dix Hospital” or “Dix Hill”, which is the name of the hill the hospital was built on).

“She’s too flirty,” says Elsie. “She doesn’t seem all that bright to me. You should make your cornbread stuffing. With the pepper sherry. It’s the best thing you make. There really is too much cream cheese on this cucumber sandwich.”

NOTE: I have been typing this eavesdropped conversation on a mobile phone. Dottie and Elsie are discussing the best way to make a sweet potato casserole and a squash casserole. “You can tell we’re Southern,” giggles Dottie. “Indeed,” agrees the infinitely serious Elsie. (I’m going to try Dottie and Elsie’s recipe secrets and pass them off as my own.)

My oolong tea has grown cold. Damn. They are now speaking in hushed tones about a married woman at church who had an affair with a black man and had the prettiest little half-black girl. The church, evidently, still allows both mother and mixed-race child to attend with no judgement. Dottie and Elsie are nothing if not understanding.


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