To spend an afternoon with Marlene Bercovitch in her art-filled home is to visit with a gracious hostess in her international salon. The walls display personally meaningful paintings, objects, posters and photographs. Cabinets and shelves hold memorabilia and gifts from family, friends and travels.
“We never wanted pictures or knickknacks one could buy in a store,” Bercovitch explains. “Everything in our home is a reminder of special places, people and experiences we’ve had.”
An oversized program from a bullfight in Mexico, a large photograph of a Native Alaskan woman with her baby and a framed 100-pound sugar bag from Bercovitch’s father’s business share wall space with an exuberant poster from the famous Night in San Antonio Fiesta, along with an enlarged photograph of a mime who posed for Bercovitch in Old Montreal. The Bercovitch home is a physical family biography, with every piece of furniture and decorative detail a marker of a significant person or event.
Bercovitch’s formative and newlywed years were spent in Montreal. A visitor learns about the Montreal tea customs she admires, out of which grew her large collection of teapots.
“When I invited you to come for tea [in Montreal],” she explains, “I meant any day, any time. The brewed tea would be poured from a pot that is constructed with an inner strainer which holds loose tea leaves, thereby separating them from the boiling water when the tea is poured. You would drink your tea from a pretty, decently sized cup with a matching saucer. And there would be a pastry like mandelbrot (Jewish-style biscotti) to go with it.”
Today, when one joins Bercovitch for tea in her Atlanta home, the pastry she offers is always homemade and delicious. For decades, she and her late husband, Ed Bercovitch, owned Elegant Essen, a popular kosher catering business, which opened in Atlanta in 1990. Their vehicle had “Essen” (meaning “eat” in Yiddish) on its license plate, a wink to those who are Yiddish-alert and whose curiosity would be easily piqued.
Bercovitch and Ed had a hard time adapting to America’s coffee culture. In Montreal, “Come over for tea” is a home invitation for friendship and conversation. “‘No tea bags!’ Bercovitch declares, “‘and no Styrofoam cups!’”
Her collection of dozens of teapots — ranging from collectible, traditional-style antiques to more contemporary iterations — began with a wedding gift from her mother; it is a highly-decorated English bone china Crown Derby tea set. Today, Bercovitch’s collection spans countries and decades, including figurative teapots, amusing teapots, whimsical teapots and artistically intriguing ones. Her favorite is a tea kettle with moving parts.
The large metal circus-themed vessel is designed with an outer ring of animals that march around the main ewer when the water boils inside, a perfect combination of purpose and play.
The teapot collection is on display in Bercovitch’s living room, dining room and kitchen — rooms furnished with finely crafted wooden and wrought iron Mexican furniture. The juxtaposition of sturdy furniture and delicate ceramic teapots creates a real-life dynamic, a yin/yang ambiance.
While each piece of furniture was selected by the Bercovitches, most of the teapots came as gifts. Notable among the trove are a diminutive gold-and-blue enamel teapot brought by neighbors from Paris. The same neighbors brought back a red telephone booth teapot from London.
The Bercovitches “dogsat” for them while the neighbors traveled, and it wasn’t hard to decide the proper thank-you gifts.
A set of glass shelves holds unusual teapots. One is a gift from friends who traveled to New Zealand. Then there’s the black bear cub sitting on a Canadian teapot’s spout and a sizeable teapot composed of many tiny teapots, given by a relative.
A blue garden chair, holding garden tools, has a cleverly incorporated handle and spout, as does a ceramic Shabbat table teapot with the table fully set. An umbrella belonging to the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland becomes the teapot handle. Although Bercovitch is the recipient of so many gift teapots, once, when visiting a client on a catering job, she spotted a sleek, faux leopard-skin purse teapot. She bought it.
Bercovitch reminisces fondly on the tea-related customs of her native Montreal. Not only was the tea set an integral part of socialization, but, over time, every hostess acquired a collection of teacups, saucers and dessert plates. The goal wasn’t to own a matched set of cups, but rather that each cup be unique, hand-decorated (some quite lavishly) and well-sized, unlike the small teacups one sees today.
Bercovitch still has many of her original artistic tea cups, and it’s easy to imagine the pleasure of drinking freshly-brewed tea from any one of them.
Do you have an interesting collection? Tell Chana about it: email@example.com.