Isn’t persnickety a good word? It means being fussy about details and it is Wanda Woolen’s favorite word the week before the English Tea at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Franklin, Tennessee. Southern women, in general, are persnickety about things. We like our pimento cheese made a certain way. We’re very fussy about Christmas sweaters (they can tend toward the tacky if you don’t watch out). We always run our fingers over the type on wedding invitations to make sure they’re hand engraved.
But nothing tops Episcopal women and the English Tea in the persnickety department. Here is Wanda, the tea chairman, trimming the mantle of Otey Hall, where the tea takes place. She has rearranged the nandina until every leaf is just so. She is smiling, but it is a forced smile. She’s still not happy with the ribbons.
The tree is covered in copper ornaments to complement the color of the nandina. Dannie Lature and Lucetta Mannion have been working on that tree for three hours. It is quite possibly the prettiest tree in Williamson County. Even with that, when the head decorator, Susan Miller, comes back she starts rearranging the copper balls. Persnickety.
I have been persnickety as well the day before the tea. My friend and food co-chairman, Anne Evans, and I have been all over Franklin. We went to the Publix for the lemons and sugar cubes. You cannot serve granulated sugar at an English tea. It’s just not done. Then we go to the Costco for grapes. The grapes at the Publix didn’t look, well, perfect. Costco always has perfect grapes. I think they’re genetically engineered.
Then it’s to the Franklin Tea Shop for special tea bags. You don’t think we use Lipton, do you? No, siree. We use loose Assam tea that has to be spooned meticulously into these special tea bags. Here is Anne with bag in one hand and teaspoon in the other. Not a measuring spoon, for goodness sake. An actually teaspoon. How do you think it got that name? We’re storing the filled tea bags in a giant colander, which is definitely not persnickety, but nobody’s going to see that anyway.
By tomorrow morning, all the decorating will be done and you will not believe how beautiful the room will look. I’ll have pictures. An army of women will have dropped off trays of precisely made tea sandwiches. Every one will be perfect. Carolyn Savage will have brought her shortbread, which is truly a masterpiece. Donna Stokes-Rogers will have left her apricot rosemary scones and you don’t even want to contemplate how perfect they will be.
You might be tempted to come to the conclusion that we are all a bunch of flighty Southern women whose priorities are slightly out of whack. But here’s the thing. The tea sells out every year. Almost 300 guests come to two seatings. At the end of the day, we make a lot of money at this and it all goes to keep our historic church in good shape. St Paul’s was completed in 1834. It has been lovingly preserved for the last 175 years. That’s a lot of persnickety to live up to. But we’re up to the task.