UPDATED: February 13, 2023 at 4:17 p.m.
KitchenAid mixers are whirring to the beat of Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” while four students bustle about the kitchen, cracking eggs and kneading dough. They’re so focused that I almost feel bad for disturbing.
It’s a Thursday afternoon in the Lowell House Faculty Deans’ kitchen, and bakers are whisking, sifting, and pre-heating in anticipation of a beloved house tradition: Lowell Tea. A group of eight students spend these afternoons helping Faculty Deans David I. Laibson ’88 and Nina Zipser prepare for the event. Meanwhile, most Lowellians are still in class, pining for the puff pastries and black tea they’ll be served later that afternoon.
“It’s the best student job on campus,” says Connor Chung ’23 as he prepares an onion-olive ciabatta bread. “You get paid to spend several hours each Thursday just chilling.”
But “chilling” is a strong word for the busy afternoon ahead of him. After finishing the ciabatta, he’ll start up on a Sicilian flatbread. Later, he’ll be baking olive-tapenade danishes.
“You’re definitely running around a lot,” says Christy Zheng ’25 as she makes a batch of white chocolate chai snickerdoodles. “Our main focus is yielding a bunch of desserts, so it is pretty fast-paced. But I think you get used to it after a bit, and it’s a fun environment."
The team is spearheaded by Emma Kagan-Moore ’19, Lowell’s Residence Manager. Kagan-Moore has been involved with Lowell Tea since she started as a student baker in her sophomore year.
“There’s definitely been a lot of evolutions in the time that I’ve been involved,” she says.
Kagan-Moore first baked for the teatime tradition under former Lowell Faculty Deans Diana L. Eck and Dorothy A. Austin, who left the position in 2019. When Lowell underwent renovations, tea moved from the Deans’ residence to The Inn at Harvard. Then, while indoor gatherings were restricted during the pandemic, tea was served in the House’s courtyard. Now, tea has returned to its traditional locale: the Dean’s residence.
But for all the evolutions, Kagan-Moore believes that her work for tea is “really just greasing the wheels of a good machine,” she says. “I try not to do a lot of reimagining of tea as an event and just think about how we can run it most effectively as it is.”
The Lowell Tea tradition has had a long run since its inception in the 1940s under Elliott Perkins, Class of 1923, the second faculty dean of Lowell House, Eck says.
When Eck and Austin became Deans in 1998, they realized they would need help keeping the tradition alive. Although one of their predecessors, Mary Lee Bossert, used to bake for tea, neither Eck nor Austin — who both held full-time jobs at Harvard — had time. “It seemed right to have a team of student bakers,” Eck says.
Eck says the event reached another “turning point” in 2013 after the tradition was featured in Lowell’s Housing Day video, which soon went viral.
The video opens with Eck and Austin sitting in their foyer, holding porcelain tea cups. Delicate piano music plays in the background.
“We invite you to come to tea on Thursdays at five,” Austin says. “You’ll love it.”
Eck, who is holding up her teacup, suddenly drops it to the ground. “Whoops,” she says sarcastically as the video dramatically shifts tones and transitions to a parody of “Get Low” by Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz.
Over the next few weeks, an influx of students came to tea, following Austin’s advice. And they loved it. The video turned what was a small Lowell House affair into a college-wide event with attendance in the hundreds.
“It was a way of relating to students and being welcoming to students who may not have had anything like that in whatever house they lived in,” says Eck.
Before the event starts, most of the baked goods are out of the oven, lined up on ornate silver trays. A large pot of black tea brews on the stove, steaming like a cauldron. The bakers and servers move to scatter a few plates of baked goods around Laibson and Zipser’s home.
Students file into the residence, which comes alive with chatter. Once all the pastries are snatched up, a baker will carry out another tray to replace it.
It’s hard to miss the moment this happens. When Chung brings in his first plate of danishes, the students’ conversation halts, and everyone moves to swarm him. They follow him until he sets the tray down and pounce at the pastries.
Gabrielle R. Brown ’23, the server in charge of making the salsa and sour cream dish, says she relishes the swarming.
“Obviously I have to act mad and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone. Excuse me, excuse me,’” she says. “But I love it. I used to be one of the swarmers. I think it’s fun and funny.”
Baked goods are brought out one tray at a time for a reason: bringing out the baked goods continuously “creates a little more momentum for sticking around,” Laibson believes.
Students like Julia E. Blank ’24 have grown to appreciate the event as a time to connect with other students, not just another desperate free food grab.
“Everyone in the House descends at some point,” says Blank, who also lives in Lowell. “It’s so good to see people you haven’t seen all week.”
But the pastries are also a draw.
“I don’t know anywhere else on campus where you can get quite the assortment of high-quality baked goods,” Lowell House resident Zachary M. Foltz ’24 says.
When I ask Foltz another question, he says: “I’m mid-bite, give me a second.”
“That pretty much describes it,” he says. “You’re always mid-bite.”
CORRECTION: February 13, 2023
A previous version of this story misspelled the name and misidentified the year of a server at Lowell Tea as Gabbrielle R. Brown ’24. The correct spelling of her name and her correct class year is Gabrielle R. Brown ’23.
— Magazine writer Sage S. Lattman can be reached at email@example.com.