It’s the main hallway you notice first. The unobservant may miss the elaborate gothic carving of Shakespeare’s Portia above the entrance, and it’s probably best to keep your head forward on South U anyway. But once you’re inside, it’s the main hallway that strikes you: high-vaulted ceilings leading to a replica sculpture of the Venus de Milo; the tall, Gothic, framed windows to the left overlooking a terrace and rolling lawn; the elegant Gold Room to the right where the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama blazes an autumnal hue.

Allison Kruske/Daily
Allison Kruske/Daily

It’s a place of dandy dreams, of nostalgia for experiences this generation never had, of an era we can only catch glimpses of through the films of classic Hollywood or the novels of Fitzgerald. And it’s here that every Friday, Martha Cook, an all-female residence hall, hosts an afternoon tea.

The anachronistic style of Martha Cook, however, is typically inaccessible to the public. While it’s true anyone can be permitted into the building so long as they have an escort (a fact commonly misunderstood in public gossip), it’s only on the day of the International Tea that the hall, one of the four remaining all-female housing options at the University, opens its doors to the public. On this day, the usual English-summer-home quaintness of Martha Cook is energized by the radiance of diverse cultures far and wide.

From Gold Room to the Philippines

After experiencing the initial awe that comes with the first step into Martha Cook, those invited to a typical Friday tea will first pass the hors d’oeuvres table in the main hallway, where the ornate tableware would blend in with the surrounding décor if not for the assortment of foods laid upon it. To get a beverage, enter the Gold Room, where you have a choice of either a tea of the day or a fruit juice from one of the two girls serving with ornamental cups and kettle. Depending on the formality of the affair, the Gold Room could be filled with an ensemble of well-dressed residents and their guests.

There is also the adjoining Red Room, named for its red color scheme, which is just as elegantly furnished as the Gold Room. The Red Room, however, has a personal touch: a large portrait of Martha Cook herself, the grandmother of building architect William Cook. And while it’s impossible to literally dress up this Martha Cook for International Tea, the building is still able to pay the homage to her name.

Tomorrow, residents of Martha Cook will host various tables featuring the food of a particular country. This year, the event is organized by Art & Design senior and Martha Cook resident Elaine Czech. As Ethnic Council Chairwoman on Martha Cook’s Student Board, Czech is in charge of planning a variety of ethnic events for the dorm such as movies, dances and trips to museums: International Tea is the largest event she is in charge of.

“It’s usually a well-oiled machine,” Czech said. “We do this every year, and everything is so set in place.”

Generally, 15 to 30 countries are represented, filling the Gold and Red rooms with the residents and each country’s table. The public at large is invited to come taste and experience the delicatessen and culture of them all, waltzing from country to country.

Not only does this event align with the University’s overall philosophy of multicultural awareness, but it also gives the residents of Martha Cook a chance to show their rich heritages.

“A lot of people like to do a country they are from,” Czech said. “Freshman year, I did Malta. That’s where my heritage is from. Last year, my friend and I did the Philippines. She had a family friend cook authentic Filipino food.”

For Nursing freshman Meghan Conger, it was a surprise to find that Italy had not been represented in two or three years. Italian herself, Conger was prompted by this fact to sign up for a table to represent her family’s heritage this year. At the Italian table, she will be providing a make-your-own-pasta dish for event-goers, with a selection of meats, pastas, veggies and sauces provided by the Martha Cook dining hall. The stand will also have Italian cookies and San Pellegrino up for grabs.

Food representative of any given country is purchased from Ann Arbor’s many ethnically centered grocery shops and restaurants. LSA senior Connie Achtenberg, who has hosted the Russian table for three years, gets her food from the Euro Market on Packard. With a variety of Eastern European foods, Euro Market offers a truly authentic Russian culinary experience. So authentic, in fact, that Achtenberg’s figure-skating coach — who originally tipped her off to the Euro Market and is from Russia herself — has to translate the labels for her since they are written in Cyrillic. Others in years past have had the food catered from an ethnic restaurant. When such food is harder to find, the Martha Cook dining hall can provide it.

When asked what kinds of tea the tables serve, Czech responded, “Usually, it’s food. The ironic part of International Tea is that rarely is there ever tea served.”

Making the tradition

Tea was served, though, back when International Tea was more like a regular Friday tea instead of the big event it has become. As Czech explained, many of Martha Cook’s traditions start out as small events that gradually grow in size and prominence within the hall community. International Tea is an example of such a process.

International Tea has been going on for over 40 years. While it was originally proposed as an educational experience for Martha Cook residents, the form of this education has changed drastically. Some of its most notable qualities, such as its public nature and its emphasis on food, were not always there.

As ‘U’ alum Catherine Davis remembers it, there was an International Tea at least one of her two years in Martha Cook (1968 to 1970). It had just been proposed by the Martha Cook Multicultural Council, and it amounted to card tables set up in the hall with poster displays to represent the countries and their cultures. These were the old kind of displays: 25-cent poster-board covered with cut-out magazine pictures and hand-lettering. The food wasn’t culturally specific, remaining the same as the servings of a normal Friday afternoon tea. All of this was intended as an educational experience exclusively for the residents of Martha Cook.

Flash forward four decades, and the event has turned into a tradition with authentic food, personal histories and sometimes even a sense of humor. Last year, LSA senior Emma Lawton decided to do a table on the Great Lakes. She served water. It was just tap water, but she reasoned that all tap water in Michigan comes from the Great Lakes Basin. And while the Great Lakes are pretty close to home, home is a rather complicated concept. This year, Lawton will do a table on San Marino, a small, landlocked country on the eastern Italian peninsula. Through a San Marino state law, Lawton, whose grandfather was born in San Marino, was able to become a citizen of the small state whose culture has had so much influence on her family and upbringing.

“(International Tea) is a way to share what’s going on in San Marino,” Lawton said. “It’s a very small country, one most people haven’t heard about, but it’s very important to me because my family is from there and it’s something I grew up with.”

A local treat called pizzelle cuisine will represent San Marino.

“It’s a type of cookie,” Lawton said. “A wafer that you make in a waffle bowl.”

Lawton described pizzelle as being easy to make for 500 people, which is good, as International Tea has attracted such a high number in recent years.

In addition to the food, there can be demonstrations of represented countries’ art and culture. At the San Marino table, one will find the San Marino flag as well as its ceramics and pottery, an art the country is known for.

“My family actually owns a pottery factory in San Marino,” Lawton said. “So I have examples of plates you would see, the traditional kind of pottery.”

In years past, Chinese art displays, Mexican folk dances, Tae Kwon Do demonstrations and bagpipe performances have all helped create the diverse atmosphere of the event. This year, Czech plans to have a projector display of international dancing and music to fill the building with an ethnic flare, which will either be colorfully foreign or familiar, depending on the event-goer.

Fashion parades, Scottish kilts and more

In an attempt to bridge the cultural distance between the United States and the rest of the world, International Tea at Martha Cook traditionally provided the local area with a globally aware and educationally rich event. By 1990, the event was beginning to resemble its current incarnation.

“I remember it being a big deal, but probably not as big a deal as it is now,” wrote ‘U’ alum Beth Yaros Johnston in a statement. “There was usually a lot of food with some dancing. I remember opening it up to the campus but it was mostly friends of residents, although it was always pretty crowded.”

During the past five years, representing culture through food has become the main focus of the event, according to Martha Cook Director Marion Law.

Holding the position of director since 1997, Law has seen quite a few spectacles at International Tea, from women in fashion parades bearing the national dress of a country to a great variety of musical and dance groups like Korean drummers or Czech dancers. Of course, everyone has their favorites.

“Personally, I enjoy my husband Dave having the opportunity to wear his kilt while helping to serve haggis to dubious guests at the Scottish table,” wrote Law in a statement.

Tomorrow from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., the main hallway of Martha Cook will be lined with flags of many nations as the Gold and Red Rooms are filled by the scents and sensibilities of 18 different countries. The tables of the countries represented this year — Russia, Poland, San Marino, Ireland, Singapore, India, Antarctica, Armenia, Sweden, Germany, Italy, Finland, Switzerland, Argentina, Basque Region (Spain), England, Albania and Scotland — will each celebrate, with their own part and parcel, humanity’s diversity.

Correction appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to pizzelle as tizzelle.

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