Loving Hands Make Light Work: Observations of Manx Life, Part II
For me, fetes and tea tents were the stuff of fiction until I arrived in Colby, Ellan Vannin. Shortly after Jane showed me my room in her beautiful cottage, she mentioned that the next day, she would be out for most of it, making sandwiches and serving tea for the parish’s Laa Columb Killey Festival, an annual celebration of St. Columba. Along with dancing, competitions, and displays, Laa Columb Killey would run its popular tea tent, where for a modest price fairgoers could sit down to as much tea, sandwiches, and cakes as they cared to consume. Overcoming my shyness, I exclaimed, “Oh Jane, could I possibly help out?” When Jane realized that I was serious--that I would like to spend a day inside a stuffy canvas tent filling hundreds of sandwiches, slicing almost as many cakes, serving tea, and washing up, she told me, “Absolutely. We’ll be glad for your help.”
The next morning, I sat at a long table with volunteers from all over the parish, the vast majority women. Towering stacks of sandwich bread were stationed around us, along with tubs of butter. Our first task was just that: butter bread. I was paired with Sue, and as we carefully ensured that the butter reached all four corners of the bread slices, we conversed about things that strangers rely on to break the ice. Weather was a popular topic for everyone, friend and stranger alike, because it was spectacularly warm and sunny for an island most noted for its mists and rain. Many gauged the passage of time based on the weather during each Laa Columb Killey festival. One year the wind was so strong that the canvas tent collapsed (prior to the festival, thankfully).
After all of the bread was buttered, tubs of homemade fillings and sandwich fixings appeared before us. Some women made ham sandwiches, others cheese and pickle, some cheese and tomato, come corned beef. Sue and I made upwards of two hundred sandwiches filled with egg mayonnaise and cress, and while we did so, we chatted about our favourite recipes. We had many of the same tastes, especially regarding chocolate. “Have you ever made a chocolate-cranberry cake?” I asked. “No,” Sue replied, “but that sounds delicious! What’s involved?” Back and forth we went, and because “many hands make light work,” the next thing I knew, all of the fillings had been used up, and the sandwiches were being whisked away by other volunteers to be put in large chests on ice.
Now it was time to cut cakes, split and butter scones, and also butter the drop scones which resembled tiny American pancakes. Here was a Celtic connection. Drop scones are as popular on the Isle of Man as they are in Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, and they are made in much the same way as they have been for centuries, on a heated griddle where the batter can be dropped (i.e. poured), and then quickly baked into delicious scones. For weeks volunteers had baked their quota of goodies for this festival. Jane had made numerous ginger cakes and was concerned that perhaps her last batch was slightly underbaked. “Not for my husband!” I laughed. Others baked banana nut bread and malt bread. Some baked carrot cakes, fruit cakes, or lemon drizzle cakes. Some had made Victoria sponge cakes with thick layers of (probably homemade) strawberry jam between the sponges.
We all worried about how well we were doing. Were the slices even? Were they too generous? Too miserly? Just as the sandwich fillings needed to be spread evenly and cover all corners of the bread, the slicing of cakes is also a careful business that we took seriously.
By noon, the cakes had been sliced, so our work came to a halt. We were now ready for the afternoon tea which would start around 2:00 and go until as late as 7:00.
During our break, other volunteers transformed the tent from huge workstation to tea tent with long tables evenly spaced and neatly covered with plastic tablecloths resembling white lace. Donning our pennies (aprons), we prepared to set to work.
Sue and I were in charge of one-half of a table set for twelve guests. Another pair of women ran the other half of the table, with their half likewise seating twelve. Our jobs were straightforward: ensure that for each guest there was a tempting assortment of sandwiches and cakes to choose from, as well as a choice of tea, orange drink, or water.
By the time we had cleaned tables, put away tea things, and packed up Jane’s car, I was tired but thrilled that I had been allowed to play a small role in helping the Laa Columb Killey festival go forward without a hitch. Later when I had time to put my tired feet up and reflect on the day, many thoughts went through my mind. For one, I reaffirmed my belief that homemade food usurps sterile, pre-packaged offerings. How many potlucks, parties, and picnics had I attended where at the end of the gathering, the processed store-bought food was always left behind while the homemade goods, even those with imperfections, had been snatched up? It must be, I reasoned, because something homemade testifies not only to a human being behind the creation, but someone who is pouring love into the mix, not just flour, sugar, and butter. The baker’s effort and sacrifice command respect on the part of the taker, no doubt, but also the fact that thought and care went into the production. I also decided that on a large scale, Laa Columb Killey’s corps of volunteer bakers and servers and those who partook of the offerings became family more so than a community. When community becomes a family, I reasoned, then the quality of life improves. I witnessed such fetes and fairs all over the Isle of Man in my two weeks there, and I am convinced that homemade sandwiches, cakes, and fresh-brewed tea, the work of so many volunteers, contributes largely to the kindness and friendliness that so distinguishes this island nation.