VIRGINIA BEACH — As I walked into the hall of the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts, the catchy sounds of a jazz quartet caught my ear. They made me want to shake a white handkerchief in the air to the beat. I opted for a two-step approach.
It got me in the mood for a Saturday afternoon of fruity teas, bites, and fashion, elegance, and the DiviniTea of Virginia Beach’s history museums.
This was the last annual museum tea event. The first, in December, was Victorian-themed, with Christmas carolers in ankle-length skirts and festive capes. This tea, May 14, was inspired by the hat and rooted in African and African American culture.
“It seems to fit with who we are – Virginia Beach’s history and cultural affairs museums,” said museums director Annmarie Reiley-Kay.
One of the partner organizations for the event was the Princess Anne County Training School-Union Kempsville High School Alumni and Friends Association, the only school for blacks in what was then Princess Anne County. Black-and-white images of promotions decorated the lobby. In the tearoom, women greeted each other with colorful fascinators pinned behind their ears and wide-brimmed purple hats and matching bows placed high on their foreheads.
Some tables included vintage headdresses, provided by the Little Theater in Virginia Beach, in addition to floral arrangements. Other centerpieces of greenery, baby’s breath, and pops of carnation color also made me smile.
In the center of the room, seven strobe bars formed a trail. As I sat down, I admired the hats in the room, such as a yellow satin pleated hat with an inner diamond circle. Another was turquoise with a matching ribbon, and another was pink felt with three strings of pearls wrapped around the band.
Gold tablecloths draped each four-seater table. A a rooibos tea bag with orange vanilla creme sat in flowery china cups, and a watermelon hibiscus tea bag and a Ceylon black tea bag waited on saucers. A silver-plated tea bag holder was included to hold used tea bags. Organizers have thought of every little detail, including gold plastic utensils wrapped in thick white napkins with a strip of gold paper to secure them.
The table could not hold any more treats, so vibrant yellow and purple church fans, displaying the program on one side and the tea menu with their stories on the other, waited on the cushioned chairs.
I started with my rooibos. It had a subtle flavor profile with delicate vanilla aromas. The menu contained a brief history. Rooibos, or “red bush”, is an herb native to South Africa. It was cultivated by the native Bushmen, the Khoisan people, and has been cultivated for over 300 years. Rooibos began to gain commercial popularity between 1904 and 1968. It could barely be imported into the United States until 2000 due to sanctions imposed during the segregationist era of apartheid in South Africa.
The timing was perfect. Model Mikel Fuller of the Ìṣẹ̀ṣè community – which practices the religion and spirituality of the Yoruba people of West Africa – hit the runway with a showstopper. She wore a stunning Nigerian red headband called gele. Golden tones reflected in the light as she swept down the runway.
Professor Omiyemi “Artisia” Green of William & Mary, a priestess from the Ìṣẹ̀ṣè Spiritual Community of Hampton Roads, walked to the podium in her green jelly. She talked about the history of gele. In Africa, a gele symbolizes social status. African Americans now wear the headband or hat to connect to their “spiritual crown”.
Show host Bonita Billingsley Harris reminded audiences of the adage, “The higher the hat, the closer to God.”
The name of the event has become clearer and aligned with the purpose – elegance and divinity.
The Teens with a Purpose models wore derby and church hats, some vintage offerings from the Little Theater. Then Stark & Legum, one of the oldest local haberdashers, introduced hats for men and women.
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They ranged from black or white fedoras with decorative bands to a summer panama hat with a blue-black ribbon and a brown suede cowboy hat. If the main male role model seemed familiar to some, it was longtime regional coach Elisha “Cadillac” Harris and the host’s husband.
Zion Smith Designs showcased some amazing pieces, giving us a glimpse into the future of headwear. The crowd admired a model wearing the year-round red satin ribbon accented with Swarovski crystals. I took out my camera.
I was seeing red and sipping it. I replaced my tea with watermelon hibiscus and its ruby liqueur, my favorite of the day. It gave me subtle sweet notes with a juicy tart finish. Hibiscus sabdariffa is native to North Africa, Southeast Asia and grows in tropical climates. In some African countries it is used for medicinal purposes. It is popular in West Africa, Central Africa and in the Diaspora. Hibiscus plants were on ships with enslaved Africans in the 1500s.
At the end of the event, people collected their boxes of desserts: a strawberry lemon tart with lemon cream, fresh strawberries and whipped cream, and a French macaroon, perfect bites to end a tea party. The slightly sweet macaron, with its buttery crust, would have complemented the earthy boldness of a cup of black Ceylon tea.
As I pondered the event of the day, I plotted my indulgence order for the tasty packed lunches, which contained the traditional tea dishes. I enjoyed the freshness of the chicken salad on wheat bread. The roast beef on a mini bun with cranberry chutney tasted like quality beef with a hint of sweetness. I loved the fresh dill smoked salmon salad on wheat bread so much that I went to the company’s website to see if it was a regular menu item. No chance. I savored the fresh, smooth and herbaceous bite. The cucumber and cream cheese with fresh chives on white bread didn’t disappoint my palate either. It had a thin layer of creaminess with a bit of crunch. Next I tried a fluffy blueberry scone with its burst of fruity flavor.
Hillary Plate, cultural program and grants coordinator for the Virginia Beach Department of Cultural Affairs, wants a tea series with a taste of history that brings the community together. It has achieved this with Elegance and DiviniTea.
Rekaya Gibson, [email protected], 754-295-8809