Every so often I return to visit the Motherland—Covington, Louisiana. Because I haven’t lived there in more than twenty years, I am often surprised by the dramatic ways in which this formerly sleepy old town has changed; first, becoming a bedroom community of New Orleans and then, after Katrina, when the city decided to spend all day there too.
On one particular trip a few years ago, I came upon something odd while taking an old familiar detour one block off of East Boston Street; something that changed my visits home thenceforth. A bit of Britain in Southeast Louisiana, it was the English Tea Room.
From the classic black limousine to the classic red phone booth to the two-out-of-five flags raised out front being the Union Jack, the first thing you realize is the proprietors of this establishment are hard-core Anglophiles. The interior of this converted Arts and Crafts bungalow is similarly welcoming with several small rooms and porches radiating from around the central kitchen and counter.
Looking more like your Grandma’s parlor than a restaurant, it is filled with chintz-covered tables and simply dripping with mismatched floral china and teaspoons, flower buds, and more tiny Union Jacks. So what keeps this shrine to shabby chic just on this side of grotesque? A very subtle undercurrent of irreverence permeates the place. Just the very tip of a tongue-in-cheek. You see, this is England with a twist.
For example, the establishment maintains a supply of men’s Bowlers, ladies’ hats suitable for Ascot, and feather boas for those who left theirs at home. The funny hats are optional, however. There is also a large cardboard cut-out of the Queen in full formal dress for those wish to obtain photographic evidence that they were once a seriously underdressed security threat at a British state function.
Sadly, Martin, the third in a line of authentic British ex-patriot managers, had been repatriated by the time I returned for my most recent visit, so my server was one of the actual (disappointingly American) owners. I arrived at two o’clock, thereby neatly avoiding both the lunch and tea crowd.
After choosing a table on one of the lace-enclosed sun porches, I ordered a Petite Windsor tea tray and a pot of Versailles Lavender Earl Grey from a list of, like, a hundred excellent and unique teas. The Earl Grey was served in its own three-cup pot and was divine with just a small lump of raw sugar.
Accompanying the tea pot was a three-tiered tray, the bottom plate of which contained four finger sandwiches—ham, cheddar and onion, cucumber, and egg salad. On the center plate were three tiny quiches, including two, warm bacon and cheese, and one, cool spinach and water chestnut. And on top were the desserts which consisted of warm scones (plain and chocolate chip), a mini-cake covered in fondant, a chocolate-covered strawberry, and three small bowls and demitasse spoons—one with lemon cured, clotted cream, and strawberry jam. (The full-sized Windsor tea is roughly double the size of this one.)
I ate everything. Well, the edible stuff, anyway. And the food was really good, even if the post-Martin service was just a tad slow.
On a side note, it may seem strange to outsiders that my favorite English tea house is in Louisiana, but the North Shore region, including Covington, originally was part of a British colony founded in 1763. The oldest families in the area are predominantly English, Irish, and Scottish, as a result.
In fact, St. Tammany and seven adjacent parishes were not even part of the Louisiana purchase and had very little in common with either the Spaniards who captured it from Britain twenty years later or nearby French-speaking New Orleans, which is roughly 30 miles to its South across Lake Pontchartrain.
Finally, in 1810, the “Florida Parishes” staged a successful rebellion against its weak Spanish government and formed an independent republic. Seventy-three days later, representatives of the Republic of West Florida negotiated its annexation by the U.S., which included it in the Louisiana Territory it had purchased seven years before. (The Republics of California and Texas were the only other independent republics annexed by the U.S. to form the fifty states.)
So you see, we shouldn’t consider it is strange for there to be such a staunch bastion of the Commonwealth of Nations to be found in South Louisiana—only that it hasn’t been there always.