Socially Savvy: Tea Time

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

You may not think of high tea as a simple event, but that’s just what it is 

Such a fuss is made over the semantics of afternoon tea versus high tea. As elegant as afternoon tea can be, high tea is the loveliest way for true friends and close family to gather together. Some are confused about the expectations for each kind of tea; they suffer from the misconception that tea is tea, whether it’s afternoon or high. In fact, afternoon tea and high tea are two very different events.

Afternoon tea for many homes at the turn of the 19th century was described as ‘the great trial.’ Rigid rules and formal rituals gave hostesses a perspective of the social fluency of guests. The formality of afternoon tea also gave a hostess the opportunity to show her family’s status in society while allowing her to form social treaties. Afternoon Tea will be the subject of another column, so for now let us focus on High Tea.

High tea takes place as an evening meal, much like supper. It is a casual affair, not the place for eggshell-thin teacups or refined porcelain. Not only is the food not delicate, it’s often made at the table where the meal is served. High tea is often served in the kitchen or den rather than the front parlor or mahogany-topped dining table set aside for more formal affairs. On the kitchen table, you will find thick slices of hearty bread, hardboiled eggs and quiche. Toast slathered with butter and honey was my childhood favorite. On the stove, the teakettle is kept warm with heavy teas like English Breakfast, Earl Grey or a good Oolong. Ornamental teas like Jasmine Pearl are reserved for showier events. Speaking of showy: leave the ornamental china and sterling silver urns to the side. The same goes for the linen napkins. Simple food, simple tea, simple settings and simple friends are all you need for high tea. Conversation is more lively then polite, centering on politics and current events. Sandwiches made with heavy mustard and ham and thick slices of cake are passed. After children and the fragile retire for a pillow upstairs, ale, port and schnapps come out for the guests, poured into the glasses at hand so that dishes and clean-up are kept to a minimum.

In a conversation long after my grandparents had passed and their house was sold, I reminisced with my brother about our favorite place in their home. The upstairs rooms and grand staircase had no appeal to us; it was the basement kitchen, the site of many family meals and high teas, which brought us the fondest memories. I recall fondly helping make the buttered honey toast. On Sundays, the day’s large meal was served at 1 pm after church, with high tea at 6 pm. Served in the low ceilinged basement kitchen with little fuss, it was a good time with close friends and family gathered together to drink and share conversation. Lively banter revolving around deeper beliefs was always on the table, a far cry from the polite talk of the formal upstairs rooms.

But my memories aren’t just of the simple food, the table and the room. What made high tea so special in my grandparents’ home was the relaxed atmosphere that put everyone at ease—even someone as notoriously uptight as Grandmother.


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