Once we finished taking our country away from the British 227 years ago, we set about the task of appropriating some of their ways and customs, which we then adapted to our own purposes and tastes and offered to the world our way.
Two such appropriations involve the matters of High Tea and Afternoon Tea. At one time, each meant something different and distinct to the Brits. Then we Americans mushed them together, rolled them back out in testaments to marketing and handed over commercialized versions that use the two terms interchangeably.
And what is worse: our dalliance has infected the Empire itself.
To get my facts straight I went to my best source on most things British – my wife Jennifer, who was born and grew up in Middlesex, right near Heathrow Airport.
What sparked this whole discussion was the fact that we had some kind of Tea, either High or Afternoon, today at the Fairmont Express Hotel in Victoria British Columbia, right there beneath the Union Jack. All of the material inside the hotel, including everything available in the Tea room, refers to what we had as Afternoon Tea. Yet the sign in front of the hotel advertises High Tea and invites passersby to come in and make a reservation.
Jennifer explained it this way: your every day Brit used to enjoy a cuppa tea with a scone, clotted cream and jam each day about 3 p.m. This was called Afternoon Tea. It was intended to “fill a hole” until the evening meal. The idea of serving sandwiches at Afternoon Tea stems from the wealthy Brits, who would “go calling” on friends about 3 p.m. Their posher Afternoon Tea would be accompanied by finger sandwiches.
High Tea was a more hearty working-class meal usually served about 6 p.m. Brits ate what they called dinner at mid-day. In the evening they would have supper – a meal lighter than American dinners but more substantial than Afternoon Tea.
That’s how it used to be before Tony Roma’s, California Pizza Kitchen and the rest of America’s corporate culinary army marched across the pond and globalized the world of eating. My English relatives still hold to the old terms – dinner at mid-day, supper in the evening; the heavier meal at noon, the lighter meal at 6ish.
That part is easy enough to sort out. Where things come a cropper is in the Afternoon Tea vs. High Tea marketing of upscale American hotels, tea rooms, gardens and the like. And in Canadian tourist Meccas.
A year ago, we had Afternoon Tea at the Dorchester Hotel in London with our niece Karen and nephew Trevor. Five different seatings ranged from 1:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. – hardly the time frame for a traditional Afternoon Tea. The food we were served far out distanced anything that could be described as light Afternoon Tea. First up was an array of fairly standard, but very tasty finger sandwiches. Then, we had to select from a variety of other sandwiches which were placed in various ethnic categories. Then came the warm scones, pronounced like “yawns” not like “cones”. We finished with chocolates, tartlets, candies and other sweets. After that, none of us wanted dinner, I mean supper, that evening.
Perhaps the reason for the confusion at the Empress in Victoria is that the hotel is in the heart of the city’s tourist area – the Inner Harbour. By calling it alternately High Tea and Afternoon Tea they are allowing each visitor to supply his or her own definition. As for the interchangeable use of the terms in America, chalk it up to marketing. Afternoon Tea sounds like a cup of tea and could never fetch $35 per person . High Tea sounds refined and loaded with class; charge whatever you can get.
Now comes something that has become increasingly more irritating to me. When a place has a dress code, as the Empress has printed on it’s promotional material for the Afternoon/High Tea, it should be enforced. Many in today’s crowd at the Empress were dressed like they stepped right off the tour bus and into the tea room. Flip flops, jeans and sneakers, cargo shorts with sneakers … One guy wore shorts made of jeans material, sneakers and a San Francisco Giants t-shirt. One girl wore short shorts.
But this isn’t the only place at which civility has broken down.
To me, how one dresses is a matter of respect for where one is going and for the person one is with. I can’t count how frequently I’ve seen women in up scale restaurants dressed in nice black cocktail dresses, or even floor length dresses only to be accompanied by a man in khakis, with a plaid shirt and sneakers. My first thought is: doesn’t she care. Then it’s: doesn’t he care.
A few years ago, we met cousins and friends for dinner at the River Café in Brooklyn New York. It was December and very cold. I walked into the restaurant, took off my over coat and realized I was wearing a shirt and tie but no jacket. I was humiliated. Even if the restaurant didn’t have a jackets required policy, I had my own standards. I spent that dinner wearing an ill-fitting jacket that the restaurant provided. The color didn’t match anything I was wearing. Served me right.
Anyway, today’s High/Afternoon Tea consisted of five finger sandwiches for each of us, a scone each, a cookie each, a tartlet each, a two-bight mini-cheese cake each, and two pieces of chocolate each. Plus, of course, all the tea one could wish to drink. Save for the annoying matter of people in shorts and jeans, it was pleasant enough.
Chapter Six – July 14, 2010 – A FOOD LOVER’S TREK tracks the travels of Table Talk editor Larry Levine and his wife Jennifer as they make their way by auto, ferry, plane and train from Los Angeles to Fairbanks Alaska and back. A new chapter will be published every day as long as they can connect with the Internet. You can read the earlier chapters by clicking on Food Lover’s Trek above.