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Social sandwiches

Dainty and crustless, these nibbles are a staple at celebrations across our region

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A plate of tea sandwiches

Photo: Bruce Murray/Vision Fire Studios

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Tea sandwiches, with their perfectly shorn edges and colourful fillings, are ubiquitous in Atlantic Canada. These dainty bites are a part of our history perfect for all occasions from family get-togethers to community celebrations.

As the story goes, the ritual of afternoon tea began in 1840 with the seventh Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell. She served a pot of tea and finger sandwiches to stave off hunger until formal dinner later in the evening.

Afternoon tea is historically served mid-afternoon and included tea sandwiches, cakes, sweets, and scones. In Atlantic Canada, social teas and the sandwiches that go with them are a part of life in towns and villages.

“Tea sandwiches are special because you don’t do them at home,” says Susan Duke, from Windsor, N.S. “You would only get to eat tea sandwiches if you went out. Every time there was a wedding or a funeral, an anniversary party, they got tea sandwiches.”

Tea sandwiches were always a delicacy, with flavours and fillings that wouldn’t be found on an everyday menu, Duke says.

“How many families could regularly make asparagus sandwiches on white bread with mayonnaise to feed to the kids? I mean it just didn’t happen,” she says. “It’d be a grilled cheese or tomatoes from the garden, some leftover pot roast and that kind of thing. There would never be tiny asparagus sandwiches.”

Duke grew up in New Brunswick, where her mother made tea sandwiches for community functions for over 50 years. “She probably made them for longer than that, because she died at 94 and she was still making sandwiches around 90,” Duke says.

Duke remembers her mother always made sandwiches with the crusts cut off and only used white bread. She would make egg salad sandwiches, cream cheese with cherry, cream cheese with pineapple, white tuna, chicken salad with celery, and asparagus.

“And I remember as kid, Mum making trays of sandwiches for the church and she would cut the crusts off and put them in a bowl for us kids. And, we loved it because they were always really good,” says Duke.

“These ladies were like artists. Sandwiches were all arranged so neatly. Back then, it was about the taste and the presentation, and the presentation was beautiful.”

In Newfoundland, Jean Boyd from St. George’s, has made tea sandwiches with her church group for over 50 years. Growing up, Boyd didn’t remember having tea sandwiches at community functions. “I remember putting potted meat between two slices of bread, but they weren’t as fancy as they are now,” she says.

Boyd helps with several United Church group events each year, including a tea and quilt show in the spring. The group serves egg salad sandwiches, tuna, and ham and cheese, lettuce tomato, roast beef or chicken, sometimes asparagus. “Wherever you go in Newfoundland, it’s about the same types of sandwiches,” she explained.

Back in the Annapolis Valley, you could say tea season runs from March to May in conjunction with the Apple Blossom Festival.
Linda Oikle from Hantsport, N.S., has made tea sandwiches for five years with the King’s Daughters, a group that handles receptions and other functions for the Hantsport Baptist Church. The group covers about 10 functions each year.

“For reception or afternoon teas, it’s mostly tuna, ham and cheese, egg, cream cheese and cherry, sometimes chicken,” she explained. “For a fancy tea, like the Princess Teas, we would do open-faced cream cheese and cherry, cream cheese and asparagus rolled, or cucumber and cream cheese.

Preparing for a Princess Tea requires a more elegant approach, Oikle says. “We would do different shapes, cut with a cookie cutter to make a circle, or have the sandwiches open-faced,” she says.

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