By Christopher Matthews
It’s funny sometimes how the mind works, and how certain thoughts can lead to action.
The subject of this post — The Cricket Tea Room Cook Book — was co-authored by my Great-Great Aunt, Tona Webb Perry, and served as one of the guiding culinary references for my maternal grandmother, Mary Webb Smith (“Mom”) — an excellent southern cook in her own right — and her generation of female relatives and friends (the men weren’t cooking much back then!), as well as her descending lines. In fact, the cookbook, first published in 1938, was well-known throughout the South in its time, and had numerous editions. Growing up, I often heard it cited in conversations about favorite family dishes, from home-made rolls and desserts, to salmon croquettes. And, as I recently discovered, it’s collectible, and can be found online!
But this story actually starts with a piece of family art.
A few weeks ago, I met a prominent artist (and fellow southerner) upstate who was visiting our neighbor. We were having a good conversation, which led to sharing a glass of my home-made (hard) cider — the subject of a future post! Our discussion then veered into antiques and such — it’s a southern thing — and as we have a few interesting pieces in our farmhouse, I invited him over to have a look. What unexpectedly captured his attention, however, was an old family oil painting by none other than…Tona W. Perry.
He was completely taken with the painting’s narrative, a “hounded” buck in a marsh, as well as the action and placement of the hunting dogs (conveying a real sense of three dimensions), and the lighting and color-shadings of the sky, the water and the swamp grass.
“This lady had both training and talent,” he remarked. “And how cool that it was your relative who painted it,” he added.
I smiled at this, having been around the piece my entire life. It had always hung prominently in my grandmother’s and uncle’s house (they lived together) in Jackson, TN, where I grew up. Interestingly, most of the family thought that Mom’s mother, Beulah (one of Tona’s younger sisters), had painted it. But after my uncle’s death, as we were going through family keepsakes, my grandmother — as if from the grave (a note from her was, unbeknownst to anyone, affixed to the back of the painting) — made sure we knew who actually painted it:
After his “review” of the painting, I mentioned to the artist most everything I knew about Tona: that she had owned a tea room in Tampa, Florida in the 1930-40s; had published a successful Southern cookbook based on the tea room; and had died tragically in the Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta, GA in 1946, the deadliest hotel fire in US history.
Captivating facts, no doubt. But what this encounter really brought home was that I needed to find out more about this talented, intriguing relative, especially her Cricket Tea Room adventure in Tampa, FL.
My first step was to (re)acquire a Cricket Tea Room Cook Book. At one time, I possessed a later edition of “the Cricket”, with (by then) a more homespun, functional cover, given to me by Mom. To my chagrin, though, I had somehow lost track of it, and the family had no more spare copies. So…I went online recently, where I promptly found the Cricket on a vintage cookbook website, in a much earlier edition, apparently in good condition, for $50.00 (including shipping). This was the cost of my negligence, but it also represented a considerable upgrade: what arrived was a slim, elegant gold-covered 3rd Edition from 1942 (i.e. the one pictured above).
It’s a fun read, and a time-capsule of Southern cooking, filled with “Worth While Facts”, “Frying Facts”, and “Valuable Cake Suggestions”, etc.!
This recipe for Southern Egg Bread conveys a sense of the Cricket’s (and Tona’s) style:
It’s obviously well-researched, and clearly and sensibly written for the practicing cook back then (no hand-holding!). So, a professional piece of work (and a collectible), with some personality, but without direct insight into Tona, the woman.
My next stop was to consult with my mother, De Rust, who was quite young when Tona (her Great Aunt) was killed in the Atlanta hotel fire; consequently, she didn’t know a lot about her. But she did know that my Aunt Patti Bryant (De’s older sister) had been in touch occasionally with Tona’s niece, Carolyn (the daughter of Tona’s and Beulah’s younger sister, Ora Belle), who actually grew up in Tampa and was still there, apparently alive and well. Importantly, Patti also had Carolyn’s contacts, as well as one particular anecdote about Tona, back when she made a visit to West Tennessee to see family in the 1940s. During Tona’s stay, my grandmother, Mom, invited her to dinner one night. As Patti recalled, the main dish was eggplant casserole. At first, Tona was very quiet, and focused on the dish, eating it slowly. Then, she proceeded to identify every ingredient my grandmother had used in the casserole!
“That’s Tona perfectly,” commented Carolyn Hamlett Andersen, from an e-mail correspondence that continues between us. Carolyn was, indeed, the “missing link” to Tona and the Cricket Tea Room, and a great and generous font of information.
Although I still have more to hear about her earlier life — apparently she taught math and music before she married, after graduating from Lambuth University (then the Memphis Conference Female Institute), in Physics no less! — Carolyn has filled in many of the blanks we had about the Cricket.
At least initially, the Cricket was born out of necessity. Tona’s husband, Fred Perry, was a railroad man based in Tampa, who was killed in a train accident. She had a young daughter (another Patti!), and it was during the The Great Depression, so she needed to do something that would allow her to raise Patti and earn a living. As it happens, she and her good friend Pearl Bond, also a railroad widow, had both grown up cooking. Hence, the Tea Room idea was born.
According to Carolyn, Tona was the business person and owner of the venture, while Ms. Bond was more on the culinary side, in the “back of the house”. It started out in a small wooden house that Tona had converted, in one of Tampa’s best residential areas, now called Old Hyde Park. With a Deep South menu theme, and tapping into the popularity of the tea room concept back then– often owned by women, catering to women — the Cricket took off immediately: business was so good that she soon started planning for a larger space. The outbreak of World War II slowed things down, but in the early 1940s, she doubled down on her success: the small house was razed, and she had an architect design a new and larger place, aiming for it to look like a lovely home. Based on this vintage postcard of the Cricket Tea Room, she clearly succeeded, illustrating her keen aesthetic sense:
Here’s how Carolyn described the Tea Room:
The exterior was brick, with three dining rooms. The central room was the largest, and had the desk where someone accepted payments (in the later years, it was her daughter, Patti Perry Frankland). A room to the right of the entrance was all windows and designed for luncheons, as needed. Anyway, it is the room where I always had my luncheon parties. The room on the other side was also neat. It too had windows all around and overlooked a garden that she had a professional create, with benches to accommodate people who were waiting to get in. The floors of this informal room were concrete, and a multi-colored paint was swirled on it. I have never seen that any other place, and it was most attractive! [More evidence of her artistic bent.] The rooms were paneled; the wood was magnolia. And the food was great, southern-style (think Tennessee) and I believe it probably was the most popular restaurant in town. People arrived early to get in before a waiting line formed. Sundays were hard for church-going customers because, as a rule, there was a line when they arrived!
Showing her practical side, Tona also had a garage built behind the Tea Room, and an apartment above it. She and Ms. Bond then sold their houses and moved into the apartment, where they lived together, with easy access to the restaurant and its kitchen. Both worked on the recipes, but neither cooked in the kitchen during operating hours. Ms. Bond stayed mostly in the kitchen area, making sure the food and service all flowed well. Tona was out front, greeting people and going from table-to-table, being pleasant to all. She knew all the locals by name, and if she saw some tourists, she would go over and make them feel welcome. “I don’t think that anyone ever left feeling ignored or isolated,” said Carolyn.
And Tona didn’t stand pat, neither with the Cricket’s menu nor in her culinary repertoire — she was big into R&D! Most every summer while she had the Tea Room, she and friends would tour chosen parts of the country for a “tasting trip”, informed by Duncan Hines’ Adventures of Eating restaurant guidebook and his recommendations (kind of the Zagat’s of its day). This would account for the pan-Southern nature of the Cricket’s recipes, and the separate section, “Some Typical Dixie Dishes”.
She would have each person order different items from a menu, aiming to identify the ingredients and to report on how each dish tasted. Tona would sample some of each one in case she wanted to add it to the Cricket menu. At one restaurant, someone ordered a strawberry ice cream pie. All the ladies loved it, and as Tona wanted to be sure she had the ingredients right, she asked the manager if he would share the recipe. He refused, saying that he didn’t give away his secret recipes. This clearly did not sit well with her. When back in Tampa, Tona got busy preparing and tasting pies with different amounts of the ingredients she thought were in the strawberry ice cream pie. Finally, Tona thought she had it, and her friends tasted it and agreed. And when she printed the first Cricket menu listing the Strawberry Ice Cream Pie, she promptly mailed a copy to that manager!
Another example of her meticulousness — and scientific training! — this one from Carolyn’s niece: At the Cricket, Tona wanted the griddle cakes recipe from her head cook, Jimmie, but he told her that he didn’t have a recipe, he just made them. So, she had him list the all ingredients, and then she set out a measured amount of each. After he made them using the set out ingredients, she then remeasured the leftovers to get the exact proportions. It must have worked, because the recipe made it into later editions of the Cricket cook book and, by all accounts, the griddle cakes are delicious.
Tona obviously had pluck and determination. But she was also funny and enjoyable to be around, too, according to Carolyn.
It was on one of these “tasting trips” that Tona and friends went to Atlanta in December 1946. It was the wrong place at the wrong time. The Winecoff Hotel, where they were staying, was one of Atlanta’s tallest buildings and, owing to its steel construction, was billed as “absolutely fire-proof” — and built without fire escapes or a sprinkler system, and with only one interior stairwell. Call it the hotel version of the Titanic.
On December 7, 1946, a fire broke out on the hotel’s third floor hallway, which cut off easy escape for anyone staying above it. From Tona’s notes that she wrote before perishing, we know that her group went into the hallway and tried to find a way downstairs. They could not (due to smoke, no doubt) and went back into the room. Always the leader, Tona had them wet towels and push them into the door and window cracks to try to keep the smoke out. Then she had all of them get paper from the desk to write their names, addresses and persons to notify in case they died, and pin it on their clothing. Tona wrote more instructions to her daughter concerning the valuables that they had on or with them. Talk about being cool under fire…
Despite the quick thinking, Tona and her friends eventually died of suffocation, joining 119 other victims who lost their lives in the Winecoff fire, many from jumping out of windows. It’s America’s worst-ever hotel disaster, one that led to massive changes in hotel fire safety and design.
Tona’s untimely death also marked the beginning of the end of the Cricket Tea Room. Pearl Bond didn’t go to Atlanta with Tona, which spared her life, but she also didn’t know how to run the tearoom on her own. Consequently, Tona’s daughter sold it to a couple who tried to keep it going. Ms. Bond even stayed on to help, but it was never the same. They kept it for a number of years and finally gave up, selling it to an interior decorator.
Eventually, the powers that be in Tampa decided, via eminent domain, to build an elevated crosstown expressway right over it. Fortunately, however, someone at Tampa Preservation, Inc. (TPI) recognized the historic and artistic value of the building, and saved it from destruction by having it moved. Hence, the Tea Room lives on today as a day school, not too far from the original location.
It has been a gratifying journey getting to know Tona better, our polymath Great-Great Aunt, and an unexpected pleasure to connect with cousin Carolyn. One thing is now completely clear: I realize that my decent palate and love of good food , which was primarily nourished from my mother’s side of the family, is to a great degree attributable to Tona and her legacy. Perhaps I even got a few of her genes!