It’s a chance for everyone to dress in white, sip iced tea, and have a “mahvelous” time.
Wickets dot the freshly mowed lawn, and meticulously pressed white linen shirts, pants, and dresses—with matching hats, of course—hang in the dressing room, awaiting their debut. In the kitchen, gallons of tea steep, and cucumbers and lemons are sliced paper-thin. The sunny summer days stretch longer and longer, making the backyard our preferred entertaining venue. Newly budded trees and flowerbeds are the perfect backdrop for the 2011 Croquet Kick-off on fresh green grass.
Bocce may rule the suburban lawn, but nine-wicket croquet is the sport of choice in the city. Each year’s host puts his or her unique personality on this annual party. From the food to the decor, the only rules are that everyone must wear white, and iced tea must be served. “I look forward to it every year myself,” Donna Hoffman says. “It’s an enchanting afternoon with friends.”
A long-standing tradition in the Minneapolis-St. Paul social season, the Croquet Kick-off has taken place on many great lawns of the Twin Cities’s finest homes. The fabulous Brenda Begley hosted last year’s event in a Modern foursquare on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul. (She shared these photos with us.) This year’s host, Donna Hoffman, has offered the garden of her English Country estate near Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis.
Next year’s location has yet to be announced, but an insider hinted that visitors to the Lake Harriet Rose Garden will see a parade of white on the third Sunday in May 2012. (The Sunday before Memorial Day weekend is the day for this party. “It has become apparent that Memorial Day weekend is tough—and June is impossible!” Hoffman says.)
The party features a new host and home each year, each adding his or her own je ne sais quoi. Many of those with larger homes are happy to welcome friends and their friends’ friends. Potential hosts without a grand home may call upon their club and its staff of caterers to pull the party off. One year, the party was held in Overlook Park adjacent to the University Club in St. Paul, with tea and cocktails in the clubhouse after play. The mix of guests includes everyone from the young up-and-comers to the older and established. It’s like a networking group without an agenda—but with a cocktail to share.
Assembling the Guests
The guest list was first established 15 years ago, when two friends, Louise and Edward, hosted a monthly tea from October to April. They wanted an event to formalize the end of their tea season. About 80 percent of the guests come every year, with a rotating cast of characters brought by the invitees. “Everyone is allowed to invite guests,” Donna says, “or even to drag a date.” Those who attend decide who gets invited the next year. “I just love the mix of people,” Donna says. “Extroverts sparkle in crowds, and the quiet observers you’ve seen all winter come to life.”
Invitations go out a week before the event. No one worries about the short notice. It’s mostly a formality, because all the regular attendees marked it in their calendars long ago. The RSVP is done by telephone or card, not text or e-mail. It should include the names of any guests, so nametags can be created for everyone who is expected to attend, including the staff who manage the party, and guests who did not RSVP (as their nametags declare in bold letters). There is also a special “party crasher” badge to honor the curious who wander in. With the rate of postage these days, invitees who do not attend have no place on the guest list.
Dressed in Whites
The only three fashion essentials for a croquet game are lawn-friendly shoes, a lovely hat to shade your eyes, and crisp white linen to keep you cool. There are few other instances in sports where the dressing room rivals the playing field. But in croquet, observers and other players pay as much attention to your hemlines as they do to your game technique.
Whites can come from Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers, or Heimie’s. Don’t fret if you don’t have the Early-20th-Century white croquet uniform. The basic dress is simply light khaki or white shorts, or pants with a white button-down polo or dress shirt. Beyond that, accessories make the player. A matching hat is preferred. Subtle inclusion of color to match your playing ball is encouraged. Imagine an all-white ensemble with a blue hatband, pocket square, and Argyle socks, and you get the picture. In croquet, the fashionista can rule.
Starting with a Beverage
Upon arrival at 2 PM—not 1:30 or 2:15, since being early or late is the height of rudeness—guests are served their first iced beverage, either iced tea or lemonade. Occasionally, some of the male guests add vodka to the glass as well. Ladies, on the other hand, wait for the hostess to partake first. This year, Donna Hoffman is serving fortified raspberry lemonade. She says, “I got this recipe in my mixology class last year. It’s just fabulous.”
The Games Begin
As the guests mingle, mewing kindnesses, the hostess calls the captain—the winner from the previous year’s event—to form eight teams of four. Some guests lust for victory, while others just come for the spectacle. Teams move to the lawn, as two croquet “old guard” go out and set up the course, usually bowing out of the games themselves, preferring a comfortable place in the shade.
The 32 players play from stake to stake in a nine-wicket formation. In the classic American Tournament style, each team plays through the course. The winner of each round is placed in the playoff tournament. The remaining team members are then left to cheer on the remaining player, as the award for most team spirit is just as coveted as the award for best-dressed! Players are not only allowed, but also practically encouraged, to play with an icy beverage in hand.
All this play takes place in about two hours. Then, lunch is served on the lawn. (Guests know that if rain dampens the lawn and the game, tea will commence indoors at 4 PM sharp.)
Lunch Is Served
The menu is classic afternoon tea, and could have been torn from the pages of a 1923 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette. Iced tea, finger sandwiches, scones, and ornamental desserts—all foods that don’t require a fork—are set out on a white linen-draped table near the lawn. One exception to Emily’s rules: The lemonade may be fortified with vodka (it may not improve play, but it certainly eases a loss).
The host provides beverages, tableware, and glasses. Each guest is assigned to provide a sweet, a sandwich, or a scone. Cocktail food is strictly frowned upon—instead, think delicate finger foods. Some guests unable to attend have been known to send a dish to pass in the hope of being invited next year. Who knew food could be a competition sport?
Announcing the Winners
After finger food and more beverages, awards are passed out—even for those who may not have held a mallet all afternoon. The best-dressed award is decided by a jury of peers, as is the award for the most team spirit. The award for croquet champion is an engraved sterling box—and the honor of being the next year’s croquet captain.
As the awards presentations wind down, with many cheers (and jeers), the host and location for the next year are announced. Most guests then pack up, and make their good-byes to the host and their friends, but the biggest tea-partyers (in the nonpolitical sense of that phrase, of course) settle in for cocktails and cozy conversations.
The croquet tradition has survived by adapting with the times. For the most part, the game hasn’t changed, but the way we live and use our homes has. Today, we may not arrive in Cadillacs with hampers of goodies from Dayton’s. Instead, it’s tea sandwiches made using Martha Stewart’s instructions and Bramblewood scones from Kowalski’s.
Iron your best whites, pop on a great hat, and join us on the croquet course. We hope to see you there!
A History of the Game
Croquet’s allure to everyone from the young hipster to the “old guard” is no surprise. Through its history, since its start in the 1830s, croquet has always been a grand equalizer. It was one of the first modern coed sports, with men and women playing together after lunch or dinner parties. Both fine estates and city parks in the 1800s included croquet lawns, just as they would swimming pools or tennis courts.
Not to be morally corrupted by the sport’s flagrant ways, the early Victorians mostly banned the sport. So vulgar was the idea of men and women interacting that Boston once banned croquet within the city. By 1896, loose morals had returned, and the Croquet Association was founded to promote the sport. America’s first Olympics, held in 1904 in St. Louis, included not croquet, but roque. The crafty Americans changed to a new form of croquet, unheard of in the European croquet circles, allowing them to take the Gold Medal.
By the 1920s and 1930s, croquet had become the most popular sport in socialite, literary, and Hollywood circles. This was truly the Golden Age of the sport. Croquet was as common as tomato aspic. Generations grew up playing croquet (and roque)—most often, American nine-wicket croquet. In 1977, croquet clubs across the country banded together to form the United States Croquet Association (USCA). All clubs then adopted a six-wicket layout, which allows for faster games. Now, the nine-wicket version has been demoted to “backyard croquet.” Well, that’s good enough in our yard!
The USCA Clubs in Minnesota are:
• Madden’s Croquet Club (Brainerd)
• Twin Cites Croquet Club
• University Club of St. Paul
A Few Tea Recipes from Our Kitchen
Preheat oven to 455 degrees.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup dried fruit or nuts
Dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, or cocoa
2/3 cup evaporated milk (1 can) or buttermilk
1/2 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whisk dry ingredients together. Combine the evaporated milk, canola oil, and vanilla extract, then add to the dry ingredients.
Mix together gently until just moistened. Form into a ball, and press onto a cookie sheet, shaping into a 10-inch round. Sprinkle the top with sugar. Cut into wedges, and separate on sheet. (An alternative to this is to form the dough into one or two squares, then cut into smaller squares. The dough can also be balled with a small scoop to make rounded scones.) Bake for 11 minutes. Transfer immediately to a cooling rack. The dry ingredients can be put together days before to save time.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
1 pound cold butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
Work cold butter with a fork or pastry cutter until soft but not melted. (It’s important not to melt the butter in order to keep the cookies’ shape.) Cream the sugar into the butter, then add the flour slowly until the dough crumbs. Add the walnuts. Remove the dough from the mixing bowl, and work into a ball, gently kneading. Don’t overwork the dough and warm it too much.
Place the dough into a 10 x 15-inch edged cookie sheet, and roll out smooth. Using a ruler and a paring knife, mark a grid with 1 x 2-inch segments. These will be your cookies. Prick the cookies with a fork in whatever lovely pattern you’d like.
Place the rolled-out cookies in the refrigerator until well chilled.
Cut the cookies apart, and place on a new cookie sheet, keeping the remaining cookies cold until ready to bake. Put the cookies in the oven, and turn the oven down to 275 degrees.
Bake for 35 minutes, then watch carefully for up to another 10 minutes. Remove cookies from the oven when they are golden brown.