In honor of a visit by the Duchess of York, I see the high-society folks in Houston have thrown a little afternoon get-together that they called a “high tea.” Although I was not present at this gala event, I’m willing to bet that it was not high tea at all.
Most Americans have the mistaken notion that “high tea” is a very elaborate spread, replete with silver teapot, fine china cups, dainty finger sandwiches of cucumber and smoked salmon, rich cakes, delicate cream puffs, chocolate éclairs, crumpets, and buttery scones laden with clotted cream.
That’s “afternoon tea,” albeit a very upscale one. A more typical afternoon tea would consist of a cup of tea, a few biscuits (cookies), and maybe a slice of cake.
Variations of afternoon tea include a “light tea,” in which the food is generally limited to sweets, such as biscuits, sponge cakes, madeleines, or trifle; “full tea,” in which various savory sandwiches are added to a large array of sweets; and “cream tea,” in which the principal food is scones with Devonshire cream and strawberry preserves. If fresh strawberries are served with the scones, the cream tea becomes a “strawberry tea.”
The misunderstanding about “high tea” comes from the interpretation of the word “high,” which is wrongly thought in this instance to mean “grand” or “elegant.” In fact “high tea,” usually served in working-class households, consists of simple, hot food—fried eggs, sausages, cheese, tomatoes, chips, beans, etc., as well as a cup of tea—and serves as the evening meal. Nowadays, one finds such a meal referred to as “high tea” mostly in Scotland and the North of England. In other places it may be known as “supper” of simply “tea.”
The best explanation I have come across as to why it’s called “high tea,” is that it was eaten around 6:00 p.m. by servants at a dinner table of standard height—as opposed to the low tea tables on which afternoon tea for the upper crust had been served, usually at about 4:00 p.m. Eaten from a more elevated table, the meal was therefore a “high” tea.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is usually high himself, but not from tea.
The high and mighty
Like their high tea,
But I’ll take low tea
Over no tea.