Texas Tea
Southern Accents, March 2007
by Carol Isaak Barden
Photos by Shelly Strazis

When Jackson Hicks, the complete host and legendary Houston caterer, holds his yearly tea party, he attends every detail for the ultimate in Southern entertaining
Fine silver and china were brought out to serve Darjeeling tea and Manzanilla sherry.
Hicks held the gathering at his historic Greek Revival home.
Guests chose from petits fours, egg salad ovals, and cucumber-and-cream cheese sandwiches.

Jackson Hicks is rather more than a caterer. He's an orchestrator of Cecil B. DeMille-style extravaganzas at which bigwigs are beguiled and lavishly entertained. Hicks, who studied music at Baylor University, launched Jackson and Company in Houston in 1981 and quickly earned a reputation as Texas' most sought-after party machine. And in his almost 30 years of party planning, he has refined his annual tea party so that it is the invitation his friends look for every year.

Just 24 hours before his guests arrive, Hicks, dressed in a seersucker suit, sits with me in his kitchen sharing his wisdom on how to plan a perfect afternoon tea. Three weeks earlier, Hicks mailed invitations to a diverse mix of women ranging in age from 19 to 82. "The group will be small -- not more than 50 ladies at a time -- I don't want the party to feel like a crowded charity event," he says.

Not a chance. Hicks is entertaining the women in his historic, century-old Greek Revival home. Surrounded by stately oaks, the house looks like a stage set, even as an army of gardeners works overtime planting hundreds of flowers to ensure that the exterior is flawless.

Inside, the tea table is set with empty silver trays and the silver service. Hicks selected each piece and inspected the linens. "I'm nuts about my napkins," he says. "They must be flat-pressed with a touch of starch and must have a soft fold."

There are other rules to be followed as well, specifically, rules about sandwiches. They cannot be soggy, the watercress cannot be wilted, and they must be made the same day and not before.

On the day of the party, scones emerge from the oven as guests arrive. Banana nut bread is offered, along with two recipes from Hicks' grandmother -- Highland shortbread and itty-bitty sugar cookies. A true-blue Southerner, he offers classic cakes -- chocolate, pound, and lemon -- as well as the familiar tea offerings,

The host presented an array of sweets, including currant scones, spring blackberries, and giant strawberries.

petits fours and cucumber-and-cream cheese sandwiches. "You don't see sandwiches like these anymore," says Hicks, showing me the dainty egg salad ovals on whole-wheat rounds.

"Afternoon tea does not need to be such an elaborate production," says Hicks. "Something small and modest for a dozen or so friends can be very nice. You can make a few sandwiches in the morning, serve them with pound cake, and use your grandmother's tea service."

Yes, simple can be lovely, but Hicks' impeccable presentation inspires one to pull out all the stops.

"This classic early 19th-century cookie is rich, crisp, and a perfect accompaniment to tea," says Houston caterer Jackson Hicks. "I remember my grandmother making these when I was a little boy and having to caution me to wait until they cooled before I reached for them."
2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Decorative sugar
Cream butter and brown sugar at high speed with an electric mixer; add vanilla. Stir together flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl. Slowly stir flour mixture into butter mixture until well-blended. Chill well (about 1 hour).
Roll out to about 1/4-inch thickness and cut into finger-length cookies about 3/4-inch wide. Freeze cookies until ready to bake.
Remove cookies from freezer and top with decorative sugar (Hicks uses sanding sugar, but table sugar or any coarse-grain sugar will work).
Bake at 350 until just golden brown (about 10 to 12 minutes). Allow to cool. Store cookies in an airtight container or in the freezer if you are not going to use them right away.
Yield: About 4 dozen cookies

PLUS: View the complete tea party menu (in PDF format)
RESOURCES: Jackson Hicks, Jackson and Company, 713/523-5780, www.jacksonandcompany.com