BY KATHY NYQUIST SWANSON OF DASSEL
The splendor of Highclere Castle, lying on the Hampshire-Berkshire border close to London, England, was brought to the rural farm lands of Dassel, Minnesota, on April 8, at my home. The distance between the Castle and my home is 4,004 miles,
I hosted this Downton Abbey Party in celebration of my sister, Eileen Harman’s 75th birthday. I was also celebrating the completion of a kitchen remodel.
The 16 guests were family and travel friends. Each were asked to dress appropriately in dresses and hats for a luncheon patterned after the famous PBS television series, Downton Abbey, which is the highest rating drama in PBS’s 40 year history with over 120 million viewers in many countries. This rich, historical drama from the 1912-1920s explored the relationships and lives of the very wealthy aristocratic class of England and the servants who supported them in almost every facet of their lives, whether it be by their dress, food, maintenance of the castle, transportation, or at times, emotional support.
Having been to England three times, I enthusiastically spent much of the winter months working on the details for the party. Local thrift stores yielded old Avon perfume bottles, which I filled with colored water, and cloth napkins which I folded and ironed like a clutch purse, and secured with beautiful, but inexpensive, (50 cent) antique pins. Another great find was a cobalt blue teapot that matched my china ($4), and Art Deco style mirror for $6, and candlesticks at$1/pair. Additions from friends included pearls, old jewelry, doilies, and a beautiful old blue and white coffee pot set.
I found wonderful treasures in my own china cabinets, and in boxes tucked away. My parents, Art and Millie Anderson’s wedding cake topper, vintage 1941, and a coffee set complete with tea plates that my uncle purchased in Japan for his wife, my aunt, while on R&R in WWII, have always been treasured. Other decorations included some China pieces I purchased on my travels, and a Carnival glass case, from my husband’s (Ken) grandmother, and an old picture of mother’s family from 1927. As I set beautiful cups and saucers on my tea cart, it stirred memories of my mother and mother-in-law, and the past occasions where these cups had been lovingly used.
Ken and I have been married three years, after the loss of our previous spouses. I discovered there were interesting family stories that went along with his grandmother’s and mother’s hats, which had been carefully stored for over 100 years. They were once again in full display as my granddaughters, Regan, 13, and Ariel, 10, modeled them in a fashion show.
Internet shopping made it easy to purchase everything from the invitation template, take-home gift bags, long white gloves, English teas, a tea pot, cup and saucer, and four-inch miniature, detailed hats (hair clips), which I clipped on each birthday cake dessert plate. One find that excited me was some wait staff aprons for my granddaughters, as they served the table, and one for my friend, Elaine, who helped in the kitchen. They were inexpensive, yet very good quality. A friend, Shari, embroidered their names on each one. My husband, Ken, was a charming and handsome butler!
My menu, rather than have a high tea, was a luncheon featuring Chicken Divan, Raspberry Cream Salad, raw veggies, deli ham rolls, whole wheat molasses and sour dough raisin breads, gingerbread, (very common in their English kitchens as it stored very well for a month or more), English teas, coffee, and birthday cake with fruit. (Editor’s note: Some of those recipes that Kathy used are on Page 7). The breads, some of the English tea, and beautiful “hat” birthday cakes were purchased locally. I shared historical facts that I researched about the food commonly eaten in those days, as well as today’s necessary recreation of foods that can stand up to 12-14 hours of TV filming.
Judging from the many wonderful comments I received, and the pleasure I had presenting it, I would say the party was a success.