In the early 19th century, Anna the seventh Duchess of Bedford complained of a “sinking feeling” plaguing her afternoons. So her butler began bringing a pot of tea and light snacks to her boudoir midway between lunch and dinner. The duchess liked that and started inviting friends to tea time, and before long, royals and elite society were hooked — that’s a bit of teatime history neighborhood resident Lisa Sides shares with her 21st-century guests.
Sides enjoys inviting friends to “take afternoon tea” at her Caribou Estates home. The ritual involving stout little teapots, flowery china, crustless cucumber finger sandwiches and sugary dainties (“I make a white chocolate almond scone that I think, personally, is to die for,” she says) elevates the affair beyond “having tea” or “doing lunch.”
The midday caffeine and sugar fix, the conviviality, the elegant trappings — afternoon tea in 2023 at Sides’ house is not unlike the event held 180 or so years ago in duchess drawing room.
“In the 1840s the Duchess of Bedford would have entertainment like someone playing piano or violin or reading poetry,” Sides says. “So at my teas, I’ve played piano and I’ve had a gentleman come and talk about how to use all the different herbs and what they do and what they go with. It just depends who is attending.”
Despite her tea room’s Victorian ambiance, Sides likes to keep her gatherings unstuffy, but since a lot of people don’t know about tea, the afternoons can take a little bit more of an educational tone, she says.
There’s no pressure to inherently know how to position one’s pinky or any other afternoon-tea etiquette.
“I am not sure how they do it at the Ritz Carlton,” she says, “but at my tea, no one needs to worry about any of that. It is only for fun and for a chance to use my dishes.”
Sides’ fascination lies not in the tea — although she does like learning about tea and enjoys a good cuppa green with mint. For this hostess and hobbyist, it’s mostly about the crockery — the saucers and dishes and, especially, the teapots.
“As a kid with my allowance money, I’d go to garage sales or flea markets and buy dishes,” she says.
In 1997, she ran into an old college friend who had been accumulating teapots. It inspired her to fine-tune her focus. Now she has more than 400 teapots, saucers and sets.
Sides by no means dedicates all her time to tea and recreational gatherings. She’s passionate about working with local nonprofits, and lately she has been finding ways to incorporate two things that bring her joy.
She has done Parent Teacher Association-sponsored tea, for example.
“I carted all my dishes up to the elementary school and did the tea in the teachers lounge.”
And, “yes,” she preemptively answers an anticipated question, “I have broken many.”
In the spring, she hosted a meeting of Friends of HHM Health (formerly Healing Hands Ministry). It was a significant meeting, as chairperson Terri Heard passed the reins to new chair Betsy Halford. Sides made it special, Heard says.
“Lisa is a very gracious hostess and is hugely involved in community activities. She offered her house and her collection for that meeting, which was a real draw for the neighborhood,” Heard says. “She gave a talk about the history of tea, and it made for just a lovely, lovely changing of the guard.”
HHM Health started in Lake Highlands to provide affordable medical and dental services to uninsured and underinsured neighbors. One of the nonprofit’s long-running fundraising traditions has been a tablescapes luncheon, where talented decorators and designers turn setting a table into a bona-fide art form.
Heard says that’s where she first encountered Sides.
“It was years ago. I did not know her well, but I collect demitasse cups, nowhere near as organized or extensive as her teapots, but I thought, this woman speaks my language,” Heard says. “She’s got the dish problem. So I have had a deep affection for her.”
Sides says pulling together the HHM Health lunch — which she was not initially sure she could do — inspired her to continue putting her porcelain preoccupation to good use.
“I’m just getting my tea legs back,” she quips. “But that got me fired up to do more in a way that has an even bigger purpose.”