Tea (meal)

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Tea (a meal, as opposed to the beverage), has different meanings according to country. It can refer to a light meal taken in the afternoon or a major meal at midday or at the close of the working day.


Afternoon Tea

North America

The term high tea is sometimes used in North America to refer to afternoon tea or the tea party, a very formal, ritualised gathering (usually of ladies) in which tea, thin sandwiches and little cakes are served on the best china. This usage comes from understanding the term "high" to mean "formal". Most etiquette mavens advise that such usage is incorrect; (Judith Martin's tongue-in-cheek interpretation is, "It's high time we had something to eat.")

This form of tea is occasionally served in high-end U. S. and Canadian hotels, often during the holiday season, where it is usually correctly described as Afternoon Tea (see the meal's history, below).

The Tea Party is still occasionally given in North America, either for a special occasion or in honor of a visiting celebrity or guest. This occasion is a formal one in which ladies wear "good" afternoon dresses or suits and gentlemen wear business suits, but otherwise afternoon tea is an informal gathering of friends. In 1922 Emily Post wrote that servants should not enter the room during afternoon tea except if summoned to bring fresh hot water or remove soiled dishes, so as not to interrupt the intimate nature of the gathering and its conversation.

Most Americans today regard the terms "high tea", "afternoon tea", and "tea time" as conscious Britishisms or an affectation of upper class manners. It is not uncommon for US situation comedies to center a joke around a British character having his afternoon tea. However, Hollywood used afternoon tea as a device to indicate social class or status; in movies such as Notorious, Marnie (both directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who was English, but set in the United States) and Pocketful of Miracles specific reference is made to the fact that a lady would have afternoon tea. Popular culture portrays upper class ladies as taking afternoon tea with friends at restaurants or serving it to friends in their homes; by-and-large middle class ladies by contrast have a coffee break in their kitchens.

UK and Ireland

In Britain, the North American gathering described above is always called Afternoon Tea (or just tea) and generally would take place some time between 3.30 and 4.30 pm. This meal was developed by "ladies of leisure" in the 19th century.


Tea in England has been associated with wealth, aristocracy, and fine china, ever since the late 1650s, when it first became fashionable with the royal family. At that time, tea leaves were so expensive that servants were not allowed to handle them, and the lady of the house would store them in Chinese jars in her private closet. The ritual of fixing one's own tea has persisted ever since.

During the 18th century, dinner was served at a gradually later and later time until by the early 1800s, the normal time was between 7:00 and 8:30 pm and an extra meal called luncheon had been created to fill the midday gap. But since this new meal was very light, the long afternoon with no refreshment at all left people feeling rather hungry.

Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford of Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, had the idea of asking her maid to bring all the tea making equipment to her private boudoir at 5 o'clock so that the Duchess could enjoy a cup of tea with a slice or two of bread and butter. Anna Maria found this afternoon tea such a perfect refreshment that she soon started inviting her friends to join her in her sitting room for this new social event.

Eventually, the growing middle class imitated the rich and found that 'tea' was a very economical way of entertaining several friends without having to spend too much money, and afternoon tea quickly became the norm.

Modern use

Since the number of women who do not work has now declined, afternoon tea has come to be seen as old-fashioned by some. It is not the case that all or most Britons eat such a meal every day.

The Tea Party may still be given on the same occasions as it is in North America.

A cream tea is a variant meal from the south of England. It is now sold in tea houses and restaurants, particularly tourist spots, all across the country and the Commonwealth.


Afternoon tea was served daily in upper class homes in Commonwealth countries through the end of the 20th Century.


Afternoon tea is not served daily but is served more frequently than in North America.


In Germany the meal in the afternoon is called "Kaffee" (coffee).

High Tea

Middle class

High Tea is a term used mainly in the United Kingdom and Ireland to describe an early evening meal, typically around 7.00 pm. Although, it does not necessarily include tea, it has the following formal structure:

  • Main course – This is usually either a light fish or meat course.
  • Tea and cakes

The cakes may either be full sized and cut into slices, or smaller individual cakes, or muffins, toast or other sweet breads.

In a family, it tends to be less formal and often it is essentially either a regularised snack, usually featuring sandwiches, cookies, pastry, fruit, and the like (in Spain, this is called a merienda), or else it is supper.

The term "High Tea" comes from the meal being eaten at the "high" (main) table, rather than the smaller table common in living rooms. The term is now rather old fashioned, and is little used except by a fairly small number of mainly upper and upper-middle class families, and some elderly people.

Working class

On farms in the United Kingdom, high tea is the traditional and very substantial meal enjoyed by the workers immediately after dark, and combines afternoon tea with the main evening meal.


By contrast, Tea is the afternoon/evening meal, called that even if the diners are drinking beer, cider, or juice. It traditionally takes place at sometime around 6pm (though these days, it often takes place as late as 9pm).

In Scotland, Northern England, New Zealand, and sometimes in Australia and Northern Ireland, tea as a meal is synonymous with dinner in Standard English. Under such usage, the midday meal is sometimes termed dinner, rather than lunch. The prominence of this usage in Australia and New Zealand is almost certainly due to the influence of Scottish people for whom dinner is a meal eaten at midday and tea is the evening meal, the proportion of Scottish settlers being much greater in New Zealand than in Australia. Note that in modern New Zealand, the midday meal is still termed lunch. Hence Australians and New Zealanders commonly describe the three main meals as breakfast, lunch and tea.

Other Uses

In cricket, the second of the two intervals during a match lasting a full day or more is known as the tea interval. Light refreshments such as sandwiches, cakes, fruit, pasta, tea and juice are served to the players.

See also

External links

"Teas and Other Afternoon Parties", Chapter XIII of Emily Post's Etiquette (1922), at Bartleby.com (http://www.bartleby.com/95/13.html)de:Tea Time


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