Tea Traditions — “High Tea” Then and Now

“High Tea” has changed since it began in the 1600s. This evolution has taken a strong turn from its origins. These days, many tea rooms in the U.S. tout “High Tea” as their most special tea of the day, a time to serve taste-tempting dishes like crab salad with mint and lime and dress up fancy, all the way to hats and white gloves. But was it meant to be this way? The word “high” in “High Tea” could be the culprit here. A look at where the term comes from will add a bit of clarity and show how far tea rooms have veered from the original “High Tea.”

Let’s go back in the “tea time machine” to when tea was an expensive luxury enjoyed mainly by the aristocracy in such European countries as The Netherlands, Belgium, and Great Britain. They usually had tea with simple foods like buttered toast or cake. It was generally served in their drawing rooms or private palace chambers on a low table similar to today’s coffee tables. This was meant simply to tide them over until dinner time, which was served later and later in the day.

As tea became less expensive, the middle class joined in this custom. Eventually, the laborers in factories, etc., were able to afford and enjoy tea, also. For many of them, tea time was in their kitchen and took place a little later in the day (around 5 or 6 pm), a time when many of us here in the U.S. eat our dinner (or some call it “supper”). The foods served were more like a full meal and 99% of the time included some type of meat dish. This came to be known as “High Tea” because it was served at the high table in the kitchen. Tea time for the upper classes/aristocrats came to be known as “Low Tea” or “Afternoon Tea.” So, the “high” in “High Tea” did not mean “superior” or “fancy,” as some now think.

“High Tea” isn’t the only instance where this misinterpretation exists. People hear the term “High German” (hoch Deutsch) and think it’s German spoken by the more educated residents. Instead, it means German spoken by residents in the higher elevations, such as the Alpine areas in Bavaria. Just another example of how the word “high” can cause confusion.

Today, the term “High Tea” is used to indicate a fancy teatime, often where the tearoom charges a higher price. It’s hard to tell if they charge more because of the name “High Tea” or because of the menu, which often includes dainty and expensive dishes. One thing is certain: the event has been “fancied up” so that it no longer even remotely resembles the original version. Attendees are encouraged to wear nice dresses and white gloves for the women and suits and ties for the men. Members of the women’s group known as The Red Hat Society routinely attends these events in tea rooms throughout the U.S.

A few drawbacks here. For one, the fancy nature of the nouveau version of the “High Tea” tends to promote the idea that tea and teatime are more for women. A lot of men are turned off by the bite-size portions and dainty atmosphere. One tea room even launched their “High Tea” on Mother’s Day. Another drawback: a price range that averages from $22 to $85 per person can tend to limit such events to the special occasion category. Of course the price tends to be higher in areas where, well, prices tend to be higher, such as The Russian Tea Room in New York City and another place in Beverly Hills, California. (In both locations, there is a tendency to think that, the higher the price, the more classy something is.) Tea rooms located in the other 46 contiguous states are priced in line with their local market.

All hope is not lost, though. There’s a tea room that hubby and I would go to when we first met that serves a much more authentic “High Tea.” We had a choice of real steak-and-kidney pie, lamb curry, and shepherd’s pie, along with breads and cakes, and, of course, pots full of delicious teas. All for about $15 per person. Maybe it’s time to get back to this version of “High Tea” and thus counter the frou-frou image some have of teatime.

Or maybe you he-men out there could look at those bite-size bits as being just as manly as a slab of barbecued ribs and tea as a beverage as manly as the stoutest alcoholic brew.

Just a thought. Enjoy!

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2 thoughts on “Tea Traditions — “High Tea” Then and Now

  1. Melissa

    I was reading an older article one time on afternoon tea menus and recipes for a men’s afternoon tea. The food was heartier, lobster sandwiches kind of like po’boys, stronger tea and larger portions. Afternoon tea has evolved to bread and butter with tea (ala Cranford) to a huge display of wealth and waste (ala the Victorians which has been typical of that era). I wonder how well it would go over to host an afternoon tea with a much simpler menu. One that reflects our current state of recession and thrift.
    Thanks for the article. You always post the ‘good stuff’.

  2. What a great explanation of high tea and the origins of the term.

    I think it’s short-sighted to inflate the value of high tea, because I think tea can be more of an everyman beverage. The stereotypes of tea and tea drinking are actually a barrier to some getting into tea.

    Nice post. Thanks.

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