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Oct 5, 2013 09:19 PM

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:

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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.

    9 Replies
      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: Harters

              hmmm, I grew up being told that "supper" was the last meal of the day.
              often AFTER dinner.
              I agree with you, that often means just actual tea and biscuits.

              and that was decidedly in the south (Surrey)

              I was also taught that a single person ("a Briton") takes a single pronoun ('by what HE (or she) calls HIS (or her) evening meal') <g>

        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.

                    6 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: Harters

                            I like Judith Martins's explanation, "high" as in "it's high time we had something to eat."

                          2. 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.