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Pacific Northwest | May 9, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineMay 9, home
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Tea time: One mom's sane solution to the birthday-party frazzle
I HAD CALLED my oldest friend in the world to catch up. "I'm planning Anya's birthday party," she said. Immediately I was transported to birthday parties long ago — my best friend and I, the two of us side by side at the dining-room table with assorted other guests, celebrating my birthday.

We'd probably played pin the tale on the donkey and possibly musical chairs. It's all a little hazy. But the menu I can practically taste, I remember it so well: Tuna-fish sandwiches. (Peanut butter and jelly for the unadventurous.) Celery sticks. Pickles. Potato chips. Homemade chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream. Did we have milk or juice? That, I don't recall.

"We're going to the stables," my friend on the phone continued. "I can't believe I'm doing this. I don't want to have to top myself every year, but it's been so hectic . . . I don't have the energy to entertain at home." Three-year-old Anya had spent a week at horse camp over the summer, and the owner of the stable had casually mentioned that she also hosted birthday parties. The kids were shown how to brush a horse, put on a saddle and so on, then everyone got a turn on a pony. All told, one hour of entertainment.

At the time, my friend had no intention of ever following up. We'd both grown up in a simpler time of stay-at-home parties. But now, she was eager to have a hassle-free event. Her only concern was having to host lunch afterward; the kids' parents would be coming.

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When you don't have the energy, creating a festive menu and feeding a hungry group of what could be picky eaters can be a challenge. The answer, to me anyway, is a tea party. An array of tea sandwiches can satisfy a range of palates and hungers.

So when my daughter turned 4 last spring, I was faced with lunch for six little girls, one little boy and more than a dozen parents and relatives. My sister and her boyfriend flew in from Washington, D.C., to act as sous chefs and to amuse (or be amused by) the menagerie. I didn't want to spend an entire morning slicing off bread crusts and cutting sandwich rounds with a cookie cutter, so I took some creative license on the British tea sandwich.

My daughter could live on bagels, lox and cream cheese, and when she brought bagels with cream cheese for classroom snack, they got rave reviews from the pre-K set. So I fetched two dozen miniature bagels from a local shop and fixed up half with just cream cheese; the other half got smoked salmon, too.

The bakery department of my neighborhood grocery sliced a French baguette for me, and I made miniature peanut butter-and-jam sandwiches. I did break down and buy white bread, and let my sister cut the edges for cucumber sandwiches. Her boyfriend, who'd only recently learned the difference between a teaspoon and tablespoon, stayed out of the kitchen altogether, and hid candy for the treasure hunt.

Instead of my mother's celery and pickles, I chose two of my daughter's favorite veggies, baby carrots and sugar snap peas, put them in several small bowls and placed them around the table. I made deviled eggs from chicken eggs and a dozen quail eggs I came across in our Asian market. (The kids all reached for the traditional eggs and couldn't have cared less about my carefully prepared miniatures.)

I filled a platter with ripe strawberries, red grapes, banana slices, apple wedges and orange pieces. At the last minute I added a 1960s-style French-onion dip to accompany the big bowl of potato chips I was sure would please both the young and young-at-heart. Instead of birthday cake, I piled cake stands with chocolate cupcakes, pink icing and sprinkles on top.

The nice thing about a proper British tea is that bite-sized sandwiches happen to be perfect for small mouths and small appetites. The variety means everyone will find something to enjoy, and everything is easy to fix.

For a larger group, I might have added ham or roast beef on buttered black bread or turkey with chutney on whole wheat. And for an even larger gathering? You could easily turn your tea party into an international feast. My friend Terry is a whiz at spanikopita and often makes it for her son's birthday. "It's from the 'Moosewood Cookbook,' page 151," she says, without missing a beat. Simpler still, hummus, tucked into a pita pocket and cut into triangles, is delicious to eat and a breeze to prepare. The hummus recipe I use comes from "Moosewood Cookbook," too. You can make your own with canned chickpeas if you don't have time to soak the dried beans, or you can pick up a good prepared hummus at almost any grocery store. (While I do like to prepare at least some of the party food myself, I'm not going to leave out something delicious simply because I didn't make it.)

Once all the food has been decided, there are still drinks to consider. Too many beverage options confuse the guests and make my job as a hostess a whole lot harder. So for my daughter's party we served lemonade, although I had sparkling water as well as coffee and beer on hand for the adults. In the end, the only thing I forgot was the tea.

Tracy Schneider lives and writes in West Seattle. Julie Notarianni is a Seattle Times news artist.

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