June 11, 2013

Afternoon tea

My unexpected bout of bronchitis gave you an extra few days to rest your feet before we resume our tour of Monticello!  I was so excited for the weekend to arrive, but pfft...there it went in a blur of sore throat, coughing and antibiotics.  There should be a law against getting sick just as the weekend is starting.

It's such a beautiful room that I thought we'd confine today's visit to just one room-- the dining room, which has been restored to the original yellow paint color. Though the former Wedgwood blue walls inspired dining rooms throughout America, the color only dated back to 1936, before scientific paint analysis existed. Newer research by paint experts indicated that Jefferson actually chose this brilliant chrome-yellow color around 1815, when the pigment was one of the most fashionable and expensive of its time. It's a bold choice, but works beautifully with the white woodwork.  It's a fairly small room, expanded a little by a tea room at the back that could be closed up with special pocket doors during the colder months.  Large windows allow the sunlight to stream in and it's quite charming.

Even though the quote was about the White House, and not this dining room, I couldn't help but think of the famous remark President Kennedy made at a dinner honoring American Nobel Prize winners on April 29, 1962:  "I think that this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

The first time I read that quote it sparked a keen interest in Jefferson, and from that time on Monticello was on my list of places to visit someday.  The dining room has, of course, some special Jefferson "touches"---he loved filling Monticello with gadgets designed with "a greater eye to convenience."  Built into each side of the fireplace is a wine dumbwaiter, consisting of a box into which a slave in the wine cellar -- located directly below the Dining Room -- could place a bottle. At the appropriate time, a family member or Burwell Colbert, the slave butler, pulled the box up to the Dining Room and removed the bottle. When not in use, the dumbwaiters could be concealed by shutting their doors.
Other types of dumbwaiters were used throughout dinner to allow guests to serve themselves in the "French style" so admired by Jefferson.  Food was prepared in the kitchen, located under the south terrace and connected to the house by the all-weather passageway.
The meal was then carried up a narrow and steep staircase, and stacked on rounded shelves attached to one side of the dining room door. The door rotated from the center instead of hinging on one edge, so once the shelves were loaded, slaves would turn the door so that the food would be inside the dining room.

From there, dishes would be placed on small tables with shelves also called dumbwaiters. The dumbwaiters -- some of which were built at Monticello -- were on casters, so that they could be wheeled to the table. A guest who dined at the President's House during Jefferson's tenure recalled: "by each individual was placed a dumbwaiter, containing everything necessary for the progress of dinner from beginning to end."  According to our guide, the absence of servants entering the room with food allowed for very private conversations during dinner. 
An ingenius design, to be sure, but how on earth did he keep his grandchildren from having WAY too much fun with this serving door?!  I just kept thinking what my boys would have done with it....

But while they would have been up to nefarious plots involving dumbwaiters and revolving doors, I could certainly picture myself having tea with Dolly Madison, a frequent Monticello visitor, in the charming tea room at the back of the dining room.
One lump or two, madam?
An afternoon cup of tea, piece of cake and then a stroll in the garden by the fish pond.  How I'd love to slip back in time for such an afternoon here!  Here's a lovely poem by June Stepansky that, while a contemporary poem, still manages to summon up an image of what it might have been like, taking tea with the Jeffersons...

Afternoon Tea

There is elegance in afternoon tea
served from a samovar
accompanied by cucumber
and cream cheese finger sandwiches,
served every afternoon at four
in a glass-enclosed sunroom
bright with light.
The sound of splashing
from a fountain
in the nearby patio,
and the muted voices of young women,
mixed and blended.
We were living at The Three Arts Club
learning music, art, drama
and the elegance of afternoon tea
served from a samovar
in a glass-enclosed room
bright with sunlight.

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