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High tea is not afternoon tea

This frequent American misunderstanding, which comes up from time to time on Chowhound on both regional and topical boards, is amusingly explained in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/opi...

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  1. Amen! High Tea is the 5pm English working man's supper. What they're really talking about is Low Tea. But I guess Low sounds too, well, low, LOL.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Leonardo

      Exactly, high tea sounds mightier!


      1. re: The Dairy Queen

        Yes, it's clearly a case where Americans have been misinterpreting "high" as meaning "high class." My English cousin's stepdaughter used to refer to the evening meal as "tea" -- apparently at least in part to annoy her mother, since that's considered a low-class usage.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          You can almost determine the social class and geographical location of a Briton by what they call their evening meal.

          "Tea" is northern and working class.

          "Dinner" is middle class across the country

          "Supper" posh southerner.

          I stereotype my compatriots, of course.

          1. re: Harters

            What do posh northerners call the meal?

            (*Are* there post northerners?! Must ask my husband.)

            1. re: Palladium

              Dinner. "Supper" is a southern affectation.

              A northern supper is a couple of rich tea biscuits before you go to bed.

      2. re: Leonardo

        Supper is often another meal entirely, eaten in the late evening. My recollection of the order and name of mealtimes in the English midlands is:


        1. re: hal2010

          Late evening supper, as opposed to dinner time supper, is just a snack before going to bed.

          1. re: hal2010

            Living in an Anglo-Argentine community in Buenos Aires in the late 1940's we followed that meal plan, only supper was dinner and wasn't served until 8 or 9. Meanwhile "tea" (not called high tea) was right after we got home from school---something not-cake (bread and butter, scones, sandwiches) and something cake (cake, cookies aka biscuits) and it was protocol that you had to eat something not-cake before you had cake. Tea is a great meal for inviting guests. I once brought both basketball teams home for tea after a game.

        2. Very much a frequent American misunderstanding - as evidenced by posts on the UK/Ireland board.

          The late afternoon "meal", of sandwiches, cakes and other bakes is afternoon tea.

          High tea is traditionally a family meal served very late afternoon or early evening. It'd be, say, a simple hot dish, followed by cake. It's not something you're likely to come across easily in the UK these days. It was always very much a northern working class meal - eaten at an hour suitable for the children and , also, very soon after Dad arrived back form the days work at the factory/mine,/etc. Families wouldnt have generally called it "high tea" but simply "tea" (and many of us will still refer to our evening meal as "tea", as oppose dto dinner or supper). Finding "high tea" on a restaurant menu would be very much a rarity - I can't recall ever seeing such except occasionally in Yorkshire.

          That said, you will find "afternoon tea" posing as "high tea" in London. Places there know that that is how Americans will know it, so they cater to the demand. As few Americans visit anywhere else in our country, other than London, you're unlikely to see afternoon tea called anything else.

          By the by, if you go back to early 20th century Britain, you'll find many people had their main meal in the middle of the day. They would call it "dinner" - rarely "lunch", even in middle class society. The evening meal would be "tea" - perhaps a sandwich or bread & jam.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Harters

            The tradition of having one's main meal at noon and calling it "dinner" still exists in the American South, at least among the older generations. Usage seems to have shifted towards "lunch" and I suppose that trend will continue.

            Just one of many examples where British usage hung on in the South much longer than in the rest of the US.

            1. re: Harters

              Harters - High Tea was also a very middle and upper class meal.

              I remember it as the meal the kids would have at 6:00ish before the adults sat down to dinner (and in upper class houses it was the children's evening meal in the nursery). It usually had cold cuts, lots of bread and butter and finished with cake or trifle. The kids would be fed and put to bed then the adults settled down to dinner.

              I remember it from my uncles house. He was my fathers much older brother and he was born in the late 1890's. I also remember Supper which was a late snack just before bed - this is from my early student days when I lodged with a retired miner and his wife in Nottingham.

            2. What an enjoyable article.

              1. I first had some sort of fancy tea, as described in the Times article, when I was in Singapore. I thought it was called high tea. My Chinese girlfriend was a Singaporean, so she took me to the hotel which, she thought, served the best "high (?) tea." I wish I could remember which hotel it was. She had warned me not to plan on dinner because I would be so full. She was right.

                Then, years later, I was vacationing in San Francisco and the West St. Francis Hotel was advertising its "high tea." I can't really say that it was called "high tea," but that is how I remember it. My anglo girlfriend had never had it. I warned her that this would knock out the chance of dinner and it did, but it was well worth the sacrifice. We had all sorts of unusual sandwich and pastries. A watercress sandwich, for example, doesn't sound very inspiring, but it is. Clotted cream was a revelation to her, as were scones. Afterward, they sort of rolled us out of the place.

                1 Reply
                1. re: gfr1111

                  Interesting that your Singaporean girlfriend called the afternoon service "high tea." When school let out, my Pakistan-born father would set out plain "tea" for us, pastries, perhaps small sandwiches and always strong tea. I can't say for certain, but I believe just plain old "tea" is the preferred term for the meal in Indian English.

                2. Yes, I know that the term high tea is often misused. How interesting to know the high comes from the high table.

                  I've also read that afternoon tea might also be call a
                  cream tea. Anyone can correct me on that.

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: nemo

                    A cream tea refers to scones with jam and cream (usually clotted) and tea. Associated with Devon and Cornwall.
                    Afternoon tea may include scones but has savoury sandwiches and a selection of cakes and pastries.

                    1. re: Paprikaboy

                      Ah. Thank you. I knew someone would put me on the right track. Thanks, paprika.

                      1. re: Paprikaboy

                        And you can tell whether you're in Cornwall or Devon by what folk first put on the scone - cream or jam. Devon is cream first. Allegedly.

                      2. re: nemo

                        Like WikiP, I would also dispute that "high" comes from "high table". Wiki's explanation which is just much more convincing is that it comes from usage as "well advanced in the day" as in "high noon".

                        1. re: nemo

                          Its not a high table as such its really high because its simply eaten at the dining table rather than in the parlour. In England the "High Table" was the top table the school masters or professors would sit at in school or university dining rooms and referenced their status.

                          It thinks the article is also wrong about "Meat Tea", meat teas are teas made from meats and were drinks used for invalids convalescing - Bovril is a commercial brand that is still sold.

                        2. "Tea" has long been an important meal in several old cultures (from which the UK may have gotten the custom, along with the drink itself). Over-the-top example from Russia follows below.

                          Incidentally Harters, just as a general comment for I haven't checked this case: I hope you aren't relying on Wikipedia for food history, for which it's a notoriously (and in some topics, both wretchedly and chronically) unreliable source.

                          20 years ago, reviewing the new US edition of Molokhovets's legendary Russian cookbook (the de-facto national recipe compendium, published in the 1800s), Tatiana Tolstaya cited examples of the kind of eating known in that time and place, including "tea," below. (I highly recommend the cookbook!)

                          'After [lunch], it’s not long until evening tea with five types of bread, veal, ham, beef, hazel grouse, turkey, tongue, hare, four sorts of cheese. This is not counting rolls, different sorts of cookies, babas, jam, oranges, apples, pears, mandarins, dates, plums, and grapes; as if that were not enough, for "tea" one must offer rum, cognac, red wine, cherry syrup, sherbet (a kind of sugary fruit halvah or sweet drink), cream, sugar, and lemon. Plain butter and lemon butter, parmesan butter, butter from hazel grouse, with fried liver, with almonds, walnuts, pistachios. With green cheese. And shredded corned beef. (Molokhovets notes that this "may replace dinner."  What? Meaning, it might not replace dinner? Here, by the way, one remembers that the subtitle of the book is "means of reducing expenses in the domestic household.") '

                          2 Replies
                            1. re: Harters

                              To be fair, I have found Wikipedia more reliable for subjects like molecule structures, or geographical or historical names. Topics less susceptible to pop-culture misconceptions, fads, advocacies.

                              Food history unfortunately is among topics very susceptible that way. The more popular or fashionable the subject, the worse it gets. Wikipedia, as basically a free-for-all forum, accordingly is good at representing its contributors' notions, knowledgeable and not, or their commercial or polemical agendas.

                          1. Foodtimeline is the food history source that I trust most


                            "The name was inspired by the actual height of the tables used to serve this meal and a "higher" hour on the clock.

                            It cites

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: paulj

                              Likely a good reference on this topic.

                              Be aware, more generally, that the "food timeline" itself, the big graphic on its index page, has a significant known flaw. The librarian who assembled it, Lynne Olver, placed the book titles on the timeline not at their publication dates (as they're usually cited in food history writing) but at the dates of particular editions, sometimes later reprint editions, that she happened to have links for. So for instance the original Fannie Farmer appears at the publication date, 1896, but other books, including seminal early American cookbooks, don't. This can lead to mistaken impressions of who preceded or influenced whom. Even where the actual original editions are easily available in modern reprints (I have some), or even online. Their publication dates also are listed in standard reference bibliographies.

                              It's not a fatal flaw, but the so-called timeline itself is misleading in places. An authoritative cookbook timeline would make such date ambiguities clear out front. The "Food Timeline's" author has known about this for years, but evidently considers it unimportant.

                            2. I have a friend in town from abroad who is coming to my home late tomorrow and who has requested a high tea instead of dinner. Menu: Little sandwiches (ham on rye, pate' on white, tomato and egg on whole wheat); quiche (Swiss cheese, bacon, and onion); individual spanakopita (my guest is Greek); cranberry scones; little cakes (brownies, miniature eclairs, meringues, crisp Belgian cookies); big pot of tea.

                              I had an English stepfather and grew up with "high tea is a tea with meat or egg". I just throw a quiche into the works. High tea is a convenient meal if you have an evening commitment like theater or a meeting---no need for dinner.

                              1. High Tea with the Hoi Polloi ;)

                                1. Thank you.

                                  Are you planning a vigilante squad?

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: sr44

                                    Are you volunteering? I can send around a sign-up sheet.