By Melissa Arnold
Whether it’s a holiday celebration or a football party, a rite of passage or a family outing, there’s something about food and drink that brings people together. In families, shared meals can be the perfect setting for passing down traditions, memories and personal history.
Cienna Rizza knows this intimately. A self-described “dyed-in-the-wool Long Islander,” some of Rizza’s fondest memories involve sharing tea with her mother and British grandmother.
Rizza valued those experiences so much that she began to share them, hosting tea parties for friends that eventually grew to include their friends and even strangers. Armed with a deep knowledge of tea party symbolism and rituals, she created the Mad Harlot Tea Society, an organization seeking to empower and connect people from all walks of life. Taking on the persona of Miss Penelope Proper — a whimsical, rabble-rousing British authority on all things tea — she has shared her message of joyful, unapologetic confidence with women of all ages.
“Penelope is a free spirit, a leader for women who want to get out of the box. Although she is a character, she brings out the best in people and is still very ‘me,’” Rizza said. “While every tea party is a bit different, you can always expect a warm, loving atmosphere.”
On April 14, the Smithtown Historical Society will welcome Miss Penelope as she hosts a Victorian-style royal tea for ladies in the beautiful Frank Brush Barn. Proceeds from the afternoon will benefit the historical society.
“The Smithtown Historical Society works to preserve the historic properties in our town, and we seek to expand and improve upon programs for both adults and children,” said Executive Director Priya Kapoor. “All these activities require funding, and we have been fortunate enough to have the support of our wonderful friends and neighbors in Smithtown.”
The historical society holds a variety of fundraising events throughout the year, but this is its first tea party, Kapoor said. The idea was suggested by Myra Naseem, co-owner of Elegant Eating caterers in Smithtown.
“As a Smithtown resident since 1960, I feel that it is my town and I want to help it to be the best it can be. In the past, we’ve catered tea parties for bridal and baby showers and occasionally a Red Hat party — occasions when someone is looking for a dainty experience,” said Naseem. “I met Penelope Proper some time ago at a tea party where she was seated at our table. You can’t just sit next to that lady without totally enjoying her character.”
Naseem and Miss Penelope have carefully crafted the menu for tea time, which includes traditional fare — fresh-baked scones, tea sandwiches, berries and clotted cream, minicakes, tarts and more. Each guest will have her own individual teapot with a variety of teas to sample and enjoy, along with sparkling water or cider.
Miss Penelope loves revelry, so she’ll lead the group in some games and raffles throughout the afternoon, as well as the opportunity for pictures on the grounds. In addition to the food and frivolity, guests will be treated to a brief lesson on the history of tea and tea parties on Long Island, which grew in popularity following World War I.
The Royal Victorian Tea fundraiser will be held at the Smithtown Historical Society’s Frank Brush Barn, 211 E. Main St., Smithtown on April 14 at 1:30 p.m. Please note, this event is limited to 30 people and is for women only. Hats, gloves and costumes are encouraged (though not required) and prizes will be awarded for the fanciest hat and most historic costume. Tickets are $50. To reserve your seat or for further information, please call the society at 631-265-6768.