Day 1: Tea In Chicago

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After a forgotten number of months and years waiting to attend afternoon tea at the luxurious Drake Hotel, I finally made it and realized my dream. As I stirred sugar and milk into my fine china, humming Eartha Kitt’s lovely song, “Tea in Chicago,” I sat back…oh here, hum along with me:

 

and tried to recall why I even wanted to do this to begin with. Nothing came to mind aside from the obvious luxury; it seems as if it had always been a goal of mine, but that can’t be true, can it? Anyway, the third time is a charm, as they say — whoever they are, and that’s quite true. The prior two times I attempted to make a reservation at this classy establishment where the Queen herself has taken tea have resulted in failure. But, I’m getting far ahead of myself. I haven’t even told you that we’re going on a trip.

In innumerable posts, I’ve gone on and on about how important it is to travel — how it broadens the mind and engages a necessary sense of adventure that so many of my fellow humans lack. A pity, that. Much like my desire to take tea at the Drake, the specific purpose, if there ever was one, to visit New York City is long last to the graveyard of my mind. Why I chose to visit a place that still is suffering an interminable winter is probably the greatest mystery of all. I loathe the winter. That’s a point that has long been established. Still, I booked a trip to the Big Apple — I wonder what that even means — instead of my original plan to see New Orleans. Maybe I got my cities mixed up as I browsed? Who can say? All I know is that at four o’clock this morning, I was up, getting my hair ready, and heading out the door to Osceola, where the Amtrak was to fetch me.

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The station is gloriously unkempt, it looks as if it hasn’t been altered since it was first constructed in 1907. The walls are covered in peeling paint that goes dozens of layers thick. The lights on the ceiling are antiquated and mismatched chandeliers. The checkerboard concrete tiles that line the floor gave me palpitations and the cracked and warped breadboard paneling only further enflamed my ardor of the building. It was absolutely flawless. I love the past so much!

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In the dim light of the dawn, the establishment took on a rather sinister air. The dusty chandeliers didn’t provide much more than ambient lighting and so the Amish gentlemen that seem to populate every Amtrak station I’ve ever visited had their faces lost in shadow. Rather terrifying when mixed with their strange Germanic gibbering that I can’t begin to decipher.

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It seemed that I was off to a bad start with the train arriving about forty minutes late, but once it had taken off, we quickly made the time back up. Before the wheels began churning, though, I bid farewell to my father and the kindly train Nazi who at first seemed so mean, but that was just a façade, or maybe she hadn’t yet had any coffee? I’ve never understood that, I certainly enjoy having espresso in the morning (and the midmorning and the afternoon and the late afternoon and the evening and late at night and way too late at night — ESPRESSO!), but I never find that it helps me wake up much. It puts me in a nicer mood, I suppose.

The train was soon speeding through the rural countryside, snow that had recently fallen on the tracks blew wildly up and intermingled with the train’s steam. All along the way we passed massive train cars with mountains of coal in them — I guess I didn’t realize that coal mining was a thing we do in Iowa anymore…I kind of didn’t realize it was done anywhere anymore. For some reason, I found the pungent oily odor of it rather lovely and each time we passed these cars, I was happy to have the strange perfume linger inside the train.

I absolutely adore train travel. It’s really the only way to travel if you aren’t in too much of a hurry. A plane is always the quickest route, but you have to deal with restrictions and security and the occasional terrorist, not to mention the potential for ridiculous delays and being unable to travel with a full sized bottle of cologne. What am I, a heathen? With the train, you simply bring whatever you want and hop on. It can’t be safe. That doesn’t make me love it any less. The only thing that does make me feel a bit less happy with the system is the shame that it fills me with. Yes, reader, shame. Why are we so behind with our transportation? We are one of the more advanced nations in the world with a busy population and yet we don’t have bullet trains and maglev trains and all sorts of things that can be found amongst our friends in Europe and Asia. It makes absolutely no sense to me and I can only blame some kind of political blockade. I know that there were plans in Iowa for a high speed train between Des Moines and Chicago (YES!), but they were scrapped for the moment because our pale, idiotic governor didn’t think it was a viable project. FOOL! I don’t understand how he was elected again. I met him two years ago at work and was far from impressed. He looked like his blood had all been drawn from him, his suit fit terribly, his shoes were scuffed, his handshake was far from memorable, and everything he said sounded as if they were lines from a play. His associate governor impressed me equally. Meaning not at all, of course. They were lame. I’m off topic. We need more trains in America, more glorious energy efficient super fast trains! I want to get to San Francisco in a few hours not a few days. Make it happen. It’s more than possible! Intrigued by just how fast we were going, I downloaded a speedometer app onto my GOLDEN IPHONE WITH FINGERPRINT SCANNER and found that we were averaging about eighty miles per hour. Not that thrilling. Still faster than Justin Bieber was driving on that silly “drag racing” misadventure he went on in Miami.

The ride to Chicago was quick and lovely. My seat neighbor was a bit strange, though. She would just sit and sit and say nothing then throw her coat over her head and burst into fits of giggles. I didn’t understand what this meant. After each of these instances, she fell asleep, so I’m assuming she had some kind of mental deficiency and that I’m lucky I made it off the train with my life. In fact, I am, as I spilled scalding hot coffee on my hands within the first twenty minutes of being on the train. That was painful, but I wasn’t burned, thankfully. I sang “Old Man River” as we crossed the Mississippi River as is my wont to do. I tried to debunk the haunted toilet downstairs with the door that seemed to open of its own volition. Didn’t figure it out, though, so I’m convinced that it was a haunted toilet. I don’t mind a helpful ghost. I don’t mind any ghost. I’m a fan of ghosts.

As often happens, there was a rather lengthy stretch of travel that had no Internet access, so I couldn’t take my archaeology class, and instead had to amuse myself with the drama of the girl across the aisle from me. She “didn’t know” that her ticket ended at some city in Iowa instead of Chicago. Now, there were a few hours difference here and you can’t really get on the train without telling the attendants where you’re going. She was completely full of crap and hoping for a full ride all the way to Chicago. Instead, she just got taunted by the staff and received much side eye from the other passengers before being removed. Once we were rid of the thieving troll, we made fun of her a lot more. That was fun.

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It wasn’t much longer until we were in Chicago, and I’ve become so accustomed to this that it doesn’t take me long at all to lock my bag up and grab a day pass before heading out the door. I even impressed myself with my speed. I had about an hour to get to my reservations at the Drake, so I wasn’t in a hurry or under any stress. In fact, I was surprised by how decent the twenty-four degree weather was. Oh reader, what a tragedy soon befell me. I wasn’t late to tea, don’t fret, I was tricked by the skyscrapers.

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I was on one train and then another and then wondered why I didn’t just figure out which bus to take from Union Station down to Michigan Avenue. I take the 151 each time I go back, obviously it must return — my idiocy stuns me once in a while. No matter, though, I was spitted out onto Michigan Avenue and as I turned to head toward the Drake, I could barely move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see. ALL I COULD DO WAS FREEZE! I don’t know if I have the vernacular talent to properly describe the anguish that was walking up those blocks. I have never been more painfully cold in my entire life. I’m including the unreasonably cold night in London when I waited to see Eddie Izzard at the Regent Street Apple Store with the voice of Piglet in Germany and a man who was an expert on dwarves in the Second World War. Nothing in that sentence is made up; it was a very strange evening. Anyway, back to Chicago. An Arctic wind whipped off the Lake and slammed straight into my face. It was absolutely unbearable and I would have cried if I weren’t laughing. Yes, I laughed. One of those terrified laughs. Why do I put myself through these things? WHY!?!? Why don’t I just use my brain and move to San Francisco? Or New Orleans? Or Sarasota? Or some tiny little hut in Costa Rica? I’m not a cold weather fellow one bit.

The Drake was finally in sight and I collapsed into one of the plush chairs in the lobby as if it was a sanctuary — and it was. The Drake is my oasis in Chicago, my base, my comfort, my everything. I would go to Chicago exclusively for The Drake. I don’t want to see anything else, I just want to stay in my suite and order room service and go down to tea and shop at the Chanel shop in the gallery. The Drake is perfection. Slowly and excruciatingly, my blood began to recirculate through my ears and my fingers. It was absolutely dreadful. I sat there looking a fool with my beet red skin. Finally, I felt I could make an appearance in society, so I went to claim my reservation at the Palm Court.

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From the moment I entered, I was impressed. The room is tall and airy, yet cozy with a rather monstrous fountain in the middle. Plush and secluded tables ring the fountain and there are tastefully placed mirrors all about the space so that you can casually and subtly spy on your neighbors. Such fun! Even better, I was given the perfect seat on the first try. I love when restaurants do this. I often dine alone as I often travel alone and so I often found myself placed in places that aren’t exactly prime real estate. Not here! (Not at Green’s, either. Oh, Greens! I miss you so!) I was sat right in front of the harpist who was doing a rather wonderful rendition of Edelweiss. 

My waiter knew that I wanted vegetarian sandwiches before I told him — magic — and eagerly told me all about what I would be having — I was intrigued by the tofu sandwich. Tofu is usually good, but it can be awfully boring. Rather overexcited, I ordered a tea martini, which is something I love. At home I like to make Earl Grey martinis. They are absolutely heaven. This one was similar except it was made with lime instead of lemon. Exquisite. This came out with the tea and the sugar and the cream and the platter of nibbles all at once. It was rather magical. You have a sparse table and suddenly it’s laden with food! Nothing better in my mind.

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I began with the scones and they were exceedingly good. Scones are so often dry and crumby and plain and dull and absolutely boring. These were not at all! They were moist and warm and when I spread a thick layer of light lemon curd over it, I had to resist the urge to stuff the whole scone into my happy mouth. It was absolutely perfect! I don’t know why I don’t regularly have lemon curd jarred up at home, but when I get back from New York, that’s an error I look forward to righting. The scone was followed by a delectable lemon-poppy seed cake and an unsurprising macaron. The flavor was good, but the execution was wrong. There was not nearly enough ganache and the macaron shells were far too flat to be acceptable in my “Macaron Bitch” eyes.

The platter above the scones was the sandwiches and I was reasonably happy with them. The egg salad sandwich was a bit lackluster…but how can you really reinvent egg salad? It was stuffed into a brioche bun that tasted as if it had been baked the night before — nope. If I had made the egg salad, it would have had considerably more mustard and salt and chives. It was just bland. Plus, I don’t understand the etiquette that revolves around tea sandwiches. In England, where I’ve taken tea before, they are served as easily handled rectangles that you are expected to eat with your fingers. Here, though, it’s impossible to eat with your fingers and not look like a brute. I ended up cutting them up, but that felt wrong, too. The traditional cucumber was quite good with a bit of feta. The tofu was the best sandwich of the lot, but it too was marred by boring bread. The tofu seemed to be marinated in some kind of balsamic dressing and was topped with a thin slice of swiss cheese and some chilled caramelized onions. Rather good, but it’s a real shame about the bread. It could have been so much nicer!

Finally, I found myself at the top of the tray, the desserts, my territory, my area of expertise. Never forget that I am a professionally trained pastry chef, reader. I was confused, though, why the macaron had been included on the scone tier — surely it has nothing cake-like to it. I had a cream puff first; it was fine. Then I had a chocolate raspberry gel thing, I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it was good. Lastly, I had a brûléed passionfruit tart. SWEET BEYSUS, that was quality. It was insanely good. The crust was crisp and flawless. The passionfruit custard was absolutely perfect. I was sad to see it go in two greedy bites.

As I was saying goodbye to my tasty nibbles, my waiter came back and asked if I wanted anything again. I received this glorious news like manna from heaven and requested scones and passionfruit tarts. He brought out two more of each, which I quickly polished off. Thoughtfully, he brought me a few passionfruit tarts to go with my check. If I hadn’t seen him do something similar to other guests, I would have presumed he’d fallen in love with me — and who could blame him? I’ve already polished those off. Amazing! I wish that passionfruit was more readily available here in Iowa, but that’s kind of ridiculous, I suppose. Then again, if we can have oranges and the like, why can’t we have passionfruit?

The bill wasn’t massive, but it wasn’t cheap, and I wasn’t bothered. You must treat yourself to the finer things in life, reader. I later read reviews of the Palm Court and was alarmed at how many gave it negative reviews for the price. What do they expect? They are dining in a sumptuous room with high quality tea and delicious pastries all served by excellent staff. The Drake is not going to just give this away. You are paying for a few hours of relaxation and indulgence. Some people are just so uptight. I’m not uptight at all. It was an absolutely charming afternoon.

I didn’t want to go outside, but I decided that I had better go to Zara and buy some kind of hat as I had forgotten to pack one, so I took myself away from my beloved Drake and down Michigan Avenue. BAD IDEA. TOO FREAKING BRRRR. Zara didn’t really live up to my expectations, which wasn’t much of a letdown since I adore their online shop so much. They didn’t even seem to offer the same goods, so it wasn’t even like going to the same store. Topman had a hat in oxblood that would match all my outfits that I had planned for my time away, so I picked that one up. The staff there has gotten much better since the last time and I really enjoyed my time in the shop. The hat barely fits on my massive head covered with a massive amount of hair, but it kept my ears from freezing, so it wasn’t a wasted purchase.

I still had a lot of time to kill, so I sat myself on an elegant chair in a fancy mall and scrolled on my phone for a spell. I would have loved to walk around and pick up a pizza to take on the train, but it was absolutely dreadful outside. Every second was like asking for death. People were screaming as they walked. I joined them.

Finally, I decided it was a good time to catch the bus back to the train station, so off I went. And I still had absolutely nothing but time to kill after I picked up my bag. So, I finished watching the videos for the next unit of my online class and I listened to the instrumental version of Beyoncé’s, “Partition,” an obscene number of times. #notashamed

To my exceptional joy, I was soon surrounded by a flock of nuns. What are you supposed to call a group of them? I kind of like flock. I love nuns — I’ve always thought that in a very different life I would have been a nun. I’d never be a monk, but I can see myself as a nun. Singing and living in a peaceful nunnery and gardening and posing for the “Nuns Having Fun” calendar — suits me down to the ground. A fellow approached them and asked if he could take some pictures of them conversing for a project he was doing on Catholicism. They consented and I photobombed the hell out of the moment. It’s not a sin because I’m a reverend, don’t you forget that, either!

The train’s departure was delayed because of a wonky toilet, so there was an angry mob inside getting ready to torch the place. I couldn’t be bothered. It’s not like we were going to make it to New York in an hour — we don’t have maglev trains! We were going to be in that metal contraption for a day. I’m not worried about a late start. So, I was sat on the floor reading a new Anne Rice book and becoming rather bothered by the modern world — this often plagues me. I watched a woman get a bottle from a vending machine and felt very disconnected from all these poorly dressed peasants in their sweatpants. I’ll never be one of them. I don’t understand how they live; they take no pride in their appearance or their minds. They’re overly complacent and dull and plain in appearance. I didn’t want to be amongst them. I wanted a room to myself where I could hide away from their commonness. Is that too rude? I don’t care. I don’t like them. Where are the interesting people?

Finally, the train began boarding and I was absolutely enthralled by two elderly woman who were draped in furs and surrounded by Louis Vuitton luggage. They had gloriously old-fashioned hats. These were my people. They are here, there’s just not many of them. As I watched them get lifted into the train, I wanted to applaud. I don’t support fur, obviously, but they were glorious. My hat (that wouldn’t fit because of giant head) tips to them.

The train I’m on now is older than any I’ve been on in the past. It seems a bit rougher. We’ll see how things go tomorrow. I’m on it all day!

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4 responses to “Day 1: Tea In Chicago

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