Over a month ago, someone called in to the Food Critics panel on KCUR 89.3's Walt Bodine Show, raving about a place out in Belton called the Country Keepsakes Tea Room. I absent-mindedly wrote down the name and address of the place, thinking that I might want to check it out someday. A couple of days later, my friends Truman, Brenda and Carol Jean asked if we could go someplace completely different for Thanksgiving dinner. Impulsively, I called Country Keepsakes and found that it was offering a buffet. We were on.
I only got lost twice trying to find downtown Belton. (Tip: Don't get off U.S. Highway 71 until you see the big blue water tower.) Once we hit the main drag, we discovered that Belton's "downtown" is barely two blocks long and not exactly charming. Think The Last Picture Show, without the movie theater (although there apparently was one once). Several cars were parked in front of Country Keepsakes, a mustard-colored storefront that, in a previous life, was a dry cleaner and maybe a pool hall, depending on whom you ask.
The interior is fussy and quaint, which isn't necessarily a bad thing unless you're long-limbed and clumsy, like me. I'm like a bull in a china shop in settings that are crowded with artfully arranged pretty things. Our little table, draped in plastic and overlaid with festive fabric, was wedged between a decorative screen and a nonfunctional wood-burning stove used for displaying packets of spinach-dip mix. "Don't even sneeze," Truman told me, "or we'll knock over the retail section."
Truman was a shade miffed that he couldn't get a martini. Unlike the stereotypical dainty tea room, Bev Bruce's place does have a limited selection of wine and beer but nothing stronger. "Couldn't you slip a shot of Ketel One into my pot of oolong, baby?" Truman asked our beautiful waitress, the owner's daughter. She pointed out the wine list, but Truman settled for water. "I'll pretend it's vodka," he said, winking.
The holiday buffet was arrayed with grandma-style fare. Not my grandmother, who would have shuddered at "pink salad" — that's what the label called it, though I never figured out what was in it — and paper-thin slices of ham that clearly had come out of a supermarket package. The brisket and roast turkey were the real things, though, and as good as any I've had at a home-cooked feast. In fact, almost everything was delicious: the mashed potatoes, the cornbread dressing, homemade pickled beets, the gravy, the rolls and the homemade coconut-cream pie, and the apple cobbler made with fresh apples that Bev Bruce had picked from her own trees. We all ate way too much, and I couldn't wait to get home to take a long nap.
My odd, unexpected journey into tearooms continued one day when Bob, Truman and I planned to drive to Lawrence but took an unplanned detour — don't ask why — into the hamlet of Eudora. There, we had lunch at Bonnie Freeland's Madame Hatter's Tea Room. Truman had eaten at Madame Hatter's once before, with one of his artistic friends. "The food was good, but the place was loaded with society matrons and a couple of fairies," he said. "Who knew they could find Eudora?"
Madame Hatter's is lodged in a magnificent structure built in the 1800s as the Kaw Valley Bank — the original vault is now outfitted with hats and feather boas, if one is inclined to dress up for the occasion. (Truman wasn't drinking that day, so he didn't.)
It's a ladylike room to be sure, with periwinkle walls bedecked with purses and hatboxes, and parasols hanging from the tall ceilings. Freeland worked in the corporate world until 2004 when she opened her shop, which offers a nice array of teas, desserts and a limited lunch menu. Not, thank God, stereotypical tearoom finger sandwiches and nut bread but heartier stuff. Maybe not quite hearty enough for me, but it's a package deal that includes tea, a house salad, an entrée and a dessert.
I love a good deal, and Madame Hatter's serves a fresh and creamy, delectably seasoned tomato soup. I can't say the same thing about the chicken enchilada quiche, a too-exotic twist on that tearoom standby. I wish I had ordered Bob's lunch, the Holy Chicken Salad loaded with herbed bird, grapes, celery and pecans. Truman wanted the hot ham-and-Swiss sandwich, described on the menu as "the best you'll ever have." He said it was, mostly because the ham was on a decent croissant and was slathered with a good mustard poppy-seed spread.
Freeland bakes most of her desserts, except for the one I ordered — a cheesecake dripping with cranberries and cherries. Bob and Truman each had a hunk of warm chocolate bundt cake in a puddle of hot chocolate sauce.
Frankly, after that tidy little teafest, I had more than my fill, as it were, of the world of dainty food and painted china. But I made the mistake of telling my friend Mimi, the great adventurer, about the Country Keepsakes Tea Room. She wanted to see the joint and downtown Belton.
So there we were, on a Saturday afternoon, sipping tea (mine was some strange brew, the color of cherry Jell-O), admiring all the little knickknacks and geegaws, and family photos on the walls.
Bev Bruce only does buffets during holidays, so we ordered from the regular lunch menu. It boasted six dishes, none costing more than 10 bucks. All included a salad and a thick slice of yeasty, freshly baked bread.
We started with a cup of cauliflower-cheese soup that was thick, delicious and comforting. And neither Mimi nor I even like cauliflower! Mimi followed the soup with a tender pot roast, while I had a bubbling plate of tuna casserole, made with thick noodles and a cheddary cheese sauce (though not much tuna). We shared a slab of banana-split cake — layers of chocolate cake, sliced bananas, strawberries, toffee and whipped cream.
I found myself wishing that there were a place like Country Keepsakes closer to the big city. I mean, it's pretty hard to find a restaurant in the urban core that serves tuna-noodle casserole and banana-split ice-cream cake for lunch, and, damn it, there should be!
"So," I whispered across the table, "do you think a place like this would go over in the Power & Light District?"
Mimi nearly dropped her little pumpkin-apple muffin. "Why would you even think of such a thing?"
Well, history, for one thing. Downtown Kansas City was once a tearoom mecca. There was one on the mezzanine of the long-razed Kline's department store, and in that cherub-adorned third-floor restaurant at the old Emery Bird Thayer. There were also the Magic Tea Shop at 10th Street and Main and the Egyptian Tea Room, an intriguing-sounding place that operated in the neighborhood now occupied by the Power & Light District.
Back in the 1940s, my friend Georgina used to go to that Egyptian Tea Room — for the experience, not the food, which she says wasn't very good. "They did have these women dressed up like Gypsies who would tell your fortune by reading the tea leaves in your cup," she said. "They weren't really fortunetellers, though."
I asked if they were actresses.
"No. I think they were whores."
Maybe that kind of tearoom would still have a chance downtown.
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