by Anita Naughton; recipes and introduction by Nicola Perry
(G. P. Putnam's Sons) $27.50
By now it's an accepted American notion that if you sit in a coffeehouse with a laptop computer, you may fairly be considered "creative." If you have been unemployed for any length of time, you have sat in a coffeehouse and heard the same energetically self-analytical conversations repeat themselves in different keys and variations until you were ready to run screaming into the street. That's what you get for eavesdropping, but still.
I prefer what I've learned from Anita Naughton's Tea & Sympathy, a wooly accumulation of anecdotes from a popular Greenwich Village teashop of the same name. In it, while old ladies load up their scones with clotted cream and preserves, the waitresses, all of them transplants from the UK, battle their hangovers, flirt with celebrities, and call each other "ugly cow." The Tea & Sympathy way of dealing with the world--half abusive, half frankly affectionate--is a bracing curative for the boring supportiveness of West Coast coffeehouse culture; it has a style both self-deprecating and arrogant, like Hugh Grant stuttering his way through an apology.
Naughton's stories ramble about, sometimes going nowhere, sometimes going somewhere excellent rather fast, as when she finds herself with hemorrhoids after sitting in a chair occupied by the Dalai Lama ("I'm getting a bit of the holy karma on my bum"). The British, just emerging from a rather stifling class consciousness, are not as saddled as we are with political correctness, or even niceness. This registers as a relief.
These days Tea & Sympathy is hot hot hot, and as a result it's more about a vibe than food--Gwyneth and Quentin, after all, are devoted customers. But the recipes are quite good, for the kind of English food you crave if you were brought up on Enid Blyton and graduated to the novels of E. F. Benson and Iris Murdoch, or the cookery books of Jane Grigson: Cornish pasties, Yorkshire pudding, shepherd's pie, scones, and "faggots" (which are meatballs, and delicious they are, with a thick, beefy gravy). It's food that can withstand the fickle winds of celebrity approval, as well as rainy winters, bitchy gossip, and existential crises. We have no Tea & Sympathy, alas; but we have these recipes and a sense of humor.