'Did you enjoy the cakes?' she asked with a knowing grin
I confess it: I am not above waxing lyrical about the teatimes of my childhood. I'm not talking about the cup-of-tea, having always preferred milk, anyway. It is the edible side of that grand institution at about 5 in the afternoon that comes back, flooding the memory with an astonishing array of cakes, buns, biscuits, cookies, and scones. It was - looking from the standpoint of the abstemious '80s, this thinning and fearsome era of nuts and beanshoots and yogurt - as though some rosy-cheeked fairy godmother had stepped out of a pantomime, waved a wand, and magicked my early years with the words: ''Let him eat cake.''
On every occasion, of course, we children had to eat bread and butter first. That was part of being brought up properly. Also, since the meal was ''High Tea'' (called this probably on the same basis as the ''High Renaissance'' means a fuller, more thoroughgoing version of the mere Renaissance), the whole event began with a plateful of bacon, eggs, sausages, and tomato; or steak-and-kidney pie and runner beans; or plaice and chips with peas; or toad-in-the-hole; or cauliflower cheese. But having got through all these unnecessary and filling preliminaries, we arrived at last at the wonderful ''cake stage.''
We didn't just grab. We always had to ask first. ''Please may I have a piece of orange cake?'' - and my mother would ask my father to cut it. ''Please may I have some fruitcake?'' ''Please may I have a rock bun?'' I don't remember refusal; the purpose of the politeness was doubtless to instill at least a token appreciation of good things provided.
We appreciated, all right. I still do - the memory. It is hard to decide which specialties were most enjoyed. ''Melting Moments,'' perhaps? They were round, crisp biscuits. Or my mother's sticky, syrupy ginger cake? That was a marvel of intuition, with actual lumps of ginger embedded in it. I say ''intuition'' because my mother's baking is guided by that native quality far more than by recipe: She correctly practices cookery as an art, not a science, and the results are as unique to her as the Primavera is to Botticelli. (And I suspect that they may be equally unteachable.)
One of her products, greatly favored by my father, was her plain sponge cake. Nowhere have I come across the like. It contrives to be very light (she still makes it) and yet somehow substantial at the same time. A touch of lemon somewhere gives it a flavor as subtle as an aroma, and the top consists of a very thin, slightly sugary crust. It disappears to nothing in your mouth.
Her small two-bite jam tarts - raspberry or marmalade or black currant - made with the finest flaky pastry known to man, are a gooey and succulent delicacy. And the mince pies! And the coffeecake! Then there was ''Mrs. Johnson's Uncooked Cake'' - a moist, buttery, chocolate affair, a great attraction, recipe donated by a friend.
But perhaps the childhood prize should be given to the Crater Cake. This didn't occur very often, because it was in essence a mistake. It happened when a cake failed to rise in the oven: You could look into its middle like a tourist on the rim of Vesuvius. The crater was then filled with butter icing.
Of course nobody realistically expects teas of such magnitude and variety nowadays. Indeed, dinner seems to be making a comeback, and teatime a positive retreat. Teas, it seems, belong to the disgraceful, indulgent past. My wife looks back (not so far) to her mother's baking with precisely the same kind of relish - but today, when wives and mothers go out to work increasingly, and convenience food is convenient, who wants to slave over a hot stove?
There is, however, a ''tearoom'' in a small Scottish village we know that offers a hint of the old-time largess. You order from the waitress whatever beverage takes your fancy, but when it comes to scones and cakes she brings you a ''selection'' without asking.
The selection consists of two sorts of scones and a plate piled immoderately with eight or so different kinds of cake. These present a problem, because it is not made clear whether you pay a set sum for all the cakes, or if they are charged by the piece. In fact, at our last visit, a dispute arose at a neighboring table between a small English boy and his Scottish granny over just this point: the boy maintaining stoutly that if all the cakes weren't eaten they wouldn't be getting their money's worth; the granny answering puritanically that he had had ''one and a half'' and that that ''was enough.''
My wife has a smaller appetite than I have. She only ate one cake; but I, heeding the contention of the boy at the next table, systematically demolished all the others. . . .
The waitress's face was a picture when she saw the completely empty plate. It seems that most of her clientele, just for form's sake, leave at least one morsel uneaten. She proceeded to tot up - item by item.
''Did you enjoy the cakes?'' she asked with a knowing grin.
''Very much, thank you,'' said I. ''It was worth every penny.'' And for a fleeting moment I relived the innocent luxury of being ten years old and spoiled silly.