What would you call a tea with dainty little cups and saucers, petite finger sandwiches and sweet little treats? If you refer to this fancy affair as high tea -- sorry, but you’re wrong.
For some reason, in America, a fancy afternoon tea is often called a high tea because it sounds more important. High is better than low, right? High must have something to do with hoity-toity rich people?
American hotels and restaurants will even advertise “high tea” events -- afternoon meals with scones, jam, crustless sandwiches and little tarts. These are actually more of a low tea, though, according to British tradition.
The names high and low tea have to do with the time of day you are eating, but more importantly, their names are a direct reference to the height of the chair you are sitting in while eating.
In the early 1800s, Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, would get hangry in the long stretch between the noon luncheon and 7:30 p.m. dinner. She introduced a fancy little snack break midday, around 4:00 p.m., where her and the other ladies would nosh on treats and drink tea. They would sit in low, comfy chairs in the parlor and nibble while socializing because they were rich and had nothing else to do.
As for the working class, they didn’t get a snack break, so as soon as work ended, they would fill their empty bellies with pies, eggs, meat, fish, cheese and dessert -- filling comfort foods. They sat at regular dinner tables or even high tables down at the pub, so this was called high tea. Another name for it is meat tea -- definitely not the type of tea to which you wear a fancy hat.
High and low tea could not be more different, yet, in America, the names somehow got reversed. Now you can tell if a tea is the real deal by what the establishment serving it refers to it by. If it’s mini pastries and they call it high tea, it may be tasty, but it’s not authentic. And remember to keep your darn pinky down because that is the most American addition to tea time ever (Brits can spot Americans a mile away when their pinkies are up).
While trying to sort all this out, consider adding elevenses to your daily routine. A quick 11:00 a.m. break (a cup of tea and a muffin) will hold you over until lunch time, because there’s never enough tea and snacks in a day!
And please, spread the word about high tea now that you know.