Whenever my spouse was away, my daughters and I would always know what we would have for dinner that night. It would be our 'Party Tea.'
There was often nothing, in particular, we were celebrating. We weren't marking a specific occasion. Oh no - we didn't need a reason to have this most special of treats. But, that only made it more decadent, a bit naughty - and, as a result, all the more delicious.
And, one of the best things about it was that the devouring of the feast was only a single piece of the experience. The shopping, and preparation, were key parts of the ritual too.
There would be little planning: As soon as I announced it was a 'Party Tea', we would put on our coats and shoes (wellington boots if it was Winter), and march to the nearby supermarket.
It's probably the only time our tiny Tesco's seemed exciting. Because, on these rare occasions, nothing was out of bounds.
If any of us had wanted to try something for the first time, today would be the day. My daughters tried olives, and pate for the first time during one of our 'Party Teas' - the former became a favoured staple; the latter never appeared in our house again after just one appearance.
Whilst shopping, the rules were simple: For everything that could be described as a 'treat', we had to buy one unquestionably healthy thing. So, for every pack of 'Party Rings', we would purchase some carrot sticks; for every (mini) tube of Pringles, we'd throw a cucumber into our shopping basket; every mini-hot-dog would be balanced by a large, juicy tomato.
I'm not going to lie; it was a rule we rarely stuck to - the balance between 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' was often skewed towards the latter. However, the intention was there.
We would explore every aisle, looking for small foodstuffs that - when combined - would create a varied feast. It was always easier to do this at Christmas when the supermarket's chilled cabinets were full of party food - those big bags of mini pizzas, and garlic bread slices would serve us well when we came to have another 'Party Tea' in a few months time.
And it was a time for questions: "Daddy, what's a pickle?" "Where do dates come from?" We all learnt more about the provenance of our food during these forays than we ever learnt at school.
But, it wasn't just the food we had to buy; we also needed accessories.
Colourful paper plates, a lurid, disposable tablecloth... If Christmas was the best time to buy the food, then Halloween was the ideal time to purchase these accompanying goodies. And the more festooned with skeletons, and ghouls the better.
Then it was back home to prepare our feast.
After unloading ourselves of our coats and footwear, we'd head to the kitchen, lugging our bags with us.
Of course, we needed music.
Using my iPad, we'd all take turns in choosing a song off Spotify. My daughters' selections were normally taken from the various My Little Pony movies and would nestle next to my choices from The Beatles. However, much like our 'healthy' vs 'unhealthy' rule, I'm pretty certain that the dulcet tones of Applejack and Fluttershy far outweighed those of Lennon & McCartney.
As we sang and danced, we'd also chop, bake, and arrange our selections on a series of mismatched serving plates, so - aesthetically - it all looked 'just right.' In reality, this simply meant ensuring the mounds were all high enough.
Naturally, we'd sample the odd bit - we had to make sure it tasted okay, didn't we?
Then, preparation complete, we'd retire to the living room. After plonking ourselves down on the sofa, we'd load our plates full...
Potato chips would be perilously stacked on top of mini-pizzas, on top of cucumber slices, on top of chocolate fingers... whatever was constructed was normally held together with sizable dollops of hummus.
Without fail, we always - always - bought more than we could eat. Also, it was ordinarily the 'healthier' stuff that got left behind. However, those leftovers would double as my lunch for the next few days. Whilst my daughters would be at school, I would get my own miniature 'Party Tea.'
Afterwards, we'd sit there, luxuriating in the glow of having consumed food that, although not always good for us, had made us undoubtedly happy, contentedly snuggling next to each other.
There are many, many memories of my daughters' childhoods that I hold dear. But you can pretty much bet that a 'Party Tea' is involved in many of them.
And soon it will be time for another.
Father's Day is fast approaching. And we always have a 'Party Tea' on that day. But, this year, after the misery of Covid, we need that treat more than ever.
And I'm already excited.
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