noun [C or U]
1 NORTHERN ENGLISH AND AUSTRALIAN ENGLISH a meal that is eaten in the early evening and is usually cooked
2 a small meal eaten in the late afternoon, usually including cake and a cup of tea
The front cover of the US first hardcover edition of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.
Depending on a country's customs, tea can refer to any of several different mealtimes.
HistoryTea in England was initially served in coffee houses. Due to high taxation it was expensive, and only affordable for the very wealthy. Despite the cost, tea drinking became widely popular, and tea sellers such as Thomas Twining started selling dry tea, so that ladies who could not frequent the coffee houses could enjoy it.
Tea was very valuable, and was kept by the lady of the house rather than in the care of the housekeeper. It was the lady of the house also who would serve the tea, in imitation of the Japanese tea ceremony.
The following is disputed, and may in fact be an urban legend:
Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford had the idea of asking her butler to bring tea, bread and butter to her chambers at 5 o'clock, as she found herself hungry before dinner, and soon started inviting her friends to join her in her sitting room for this new social event. Eventually, the beverage tea became generally affordable and the growing middle class imitated the rich and found that the meal tea was a very economical way of entertaining several friends without having to spend too much money, and afternoon tea quickly became the norm.
Afternoon teaUnited Kingdom, though various places in the former British Empire also have such a meal. However, most Britons no longer eat such a meal.
Traditionally, loose tea would be served in a teapot with milk and sugar. This would be accompanied by various sandwiches (customarily cucumber, egg and cress, fish paste (bloater), ham, and smoked salmon), scones (with butter, clotted cream and jam — see cream tea) and usually cakes and pastries (such as Battenburg, fruit cake or Victoria sponge). The food would be often served in a tiered stand.
While afternoon tea used to be an everyday event, nowadays it is more likely to be taken as a treat in a hotel, café, or tea shop, although many Britons still have a cup of tea and slice of cake or chocolate at teatime. Accordingly, many hotels now market a champagne cream tea.
High teaHigh Tea (also known as Meat Tea*) is an early evening meal, typically eaten between 5 and 6 o'clock in the evening. It would be eaten as a substitute for both afternoon tea and the evening meal. The term comes from the meal being eaten at the ‘high’ (main) table, instead of the smaller lounge table. It is now largely replaced by a later evening meal.
It would usually consist of cold meats, eggs and/or fish, cakes and sandwiches. In a family, it tends to be less formal and is an informal snack (featuring sandwiches, biscuits, pastry, fruit and the like) or else it is the main evening meal.
On farms or other working class environments, high tea would be the traditional, substantial meal eaten by the workers immediately after nightfall, and would combine afternoon tea with the main evening meal.
* "April 23.—Mr. and Mrs. James (Miss Fullers that was) came to meat tea, and we left directly after for the Tank Theatre". The Diary of a Nobody. George and Weedon Grossmith, with illustrations by Weedon Grossmith. 1892.
In recent years, High Tea somehow became a word for exquisite afternoon tea.
Main evening mealEspecially in East Anglia and the North of England, tea as a meal is synonymous with dinner in Standard English. Under such usage, the afternoon tea meal is sometimes termed dinner, or called 'afternoon tea' or 'high tea' so as to differentiate it from just plain 'tea', the evening meal. In parts of Scotland and the North-West of England the term 'dinner' replaces lunch and 'tea' is synonymous with the main evening meal.
AfricaAfternoon tea was served daily in upper class homes in Commonwealth countries through the end of the 20th Century. The tradition continues in some countries, in others tea is served less frequently. Afternoon tea is generally available in high-end hotels, restaurants and cafés.
Australia and New ZealandMany Australians call the early evening meal their tea while others will call it dinner; though both words are mutually understood to mean the same thing. The prominence of this usage is due to the influence of Scottish people for whom dinner is a meal eaten at midday and tea is the evening meal. Although the proportion of Scottish settlers being much greater in New Zealand than in Australia, 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.
Afternoon tea is not served daily but is served more frequently than in the United States. The meal is sometimes called high tea on the same understanding as in the U.S. (see below) but purists consider such usage erroneous. Cream teas are referred to as Devonshire Teas and are available in all high-end restaurants and cafés.
During the working day tea break or just tea can refer to either morning tea (corresponding to elevenses and coffee break) or afternoon tea. This may be taken in a designated tea room. Colloquially, this can be referred to as a "morning smoko" or just "smoko"; which in times past was understood to mean a cup of tea, maybe something sweet or a sandwich, and a cigarette. This term is commonly used by tradesmen and the building industry.
CanadaAfternoon tea is not served daily, but is generally available in high-end hotels, restaurants and cafés. Of course, due to many influxes from immigrants from Hong Kong, many Hong Kong style restaurants also serve Cantonese style afternoon tea. (See below)
GermanyIn Germany the traditional intake of sustenance in the afternoon is called Kaffee (coffee), Nachmittagskaffee (Afternoon Coffee) or Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake). Only sweet foodstuffs are served, with cream-based cakes taking priority (such as Black Forest gateau), although drier forms of cake, fruit tarts and pastries may also be served. In modern times, because of work and lack of time, a Kaffee is an event reserved for Sunday afternoons with a carefully set coffee table, tablecloth, and invited guests.
The practice of consuming extremely rich concoctions flourished during the German economic recovery period — the Wirtschaftswunder of the 1950s and 1960s — as a reaction against the austerity and rationing of the war and immediate post-war years.
Traditionally coffee is the preferred drink served (with cream, or condensed milk, and/or sugar), but in recent decades tea has become more popular also to the common German people. In North-Germany, e.g. Lübeck, Bremen and esp. Hamburg, as well as in Friesland esp. East Frisia, however, tea has always been traditional. Also, in the upper class and the German bourgeois esp. of the 19th and early 20th century tea was the preferred drink, they also called it Tea instead of Nachmittagskaffee, they had their Afternoon Tea and also Tea Parties. People like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were known for their tea parties, and authors like Heinrich Heine were known as fanatic tea lovers. The afternoon tea at the home of Thomas Mann was also quite famous (a TV Station in the 1950s produced a documentary called Afternoon Tea with Thomas Mann, in which Mann invited the viewer to tea and then served a cup of tea to the camera). In the late 19th and early 20th century, tea was also extremely popular in Berlin and in parts of today's East Germany. The origin maybe lies in the German tea culture, esp. of the Prussian aristocracy, which dates back to the 17th century.
Germans are also well aware of the U.K. custom, and refer to it by the English words Tea Time. Friends may sometimes gather to have an English-style tea.
Hong KongIn Hong Kong, afternoon tea is common, although not a meal served daily. Usually some light "snacks" such as sandwiches, toast, or even more elaborated such as fried chicken, French toast, Chiu Chow Style Noodles, and even a mini meal would be served together with milk tea, coffee, Horlicks, Ovaltine, yuenyeung or lemon tea. Many local fast food restaurants, such as Café de Coral, sell afternoon tea sets.
United StatesThe term high tea is sometimes used in the United States 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 misunderstanding 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 increasingly served in high-end U.S. hotels, often during the Christmas holidays and other tourist seasons, and a rising number of big-city teahouses, where it is usually correctly described as Afternoon Tea (see the history, above). An up and coming trend in hotels spas and high end restaurants is Tea Sommelier training.
The tea party is still occasionally given in the U.S., 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.
American situation comedies might 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 women as taking afternoon tea with friends at restaurants or serving it to friends in their homes; by-and-large middle class women by contrast have a coffee break in their kitchens.