With the inception of movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and TV shows like Downton Abbey, various European cuisines have become popularized in the imagination of the American public.
Tea time, a British meal that first took root in the U.K., is one European culinary tradition whose rich cultural history often goes unnoticed by pop culture references. Meeting with friends at cafes and patisseries while socializing over tea or coffee is a concept that is essentially void over here on the other side of the pond. Many Americans, including myself, partake in a culture of convenience where we take drinks and sometimes whole meals on the go from fast food joints. We are in such a rush to check-off the endless number of tasks we have to do on a given day that sitting down leisurely to enjoy an espresso and a croissant is basically foreign for us. The fundamental thing that we’ve forgotten is the art of remaining in the present, and delighting in the sensory experiences that we are exposed to on a daily basis.
That’s why on my 21st birthday — my very first in NYC — my awesome roommate (Laura, shoutout to you!) made a reservation to go to Ladurée in SoHo, a world-acclaimed French patisserie frequented by Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl, with multiple locations around the world. It was an outing I anticipated with great excitement as I picked out a flowy lilac dress and suede brown heels. In hindsight, I overdressed, but for as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve been extra about birthdays, and my 21st would be no exception. To me, a birthday means celebrating your existence on this planet with the people who support and uplift you. So high tea at Ladurée it was!
The interior of the place blew me away as I imagined myself to be a royal member of Louis XVI’s court. The servers treated us courteously and answered questions I didn’t know I had about the menu. Once we were seated, we ordered afternoon tea, which consisted of our choice of tea, hot chocolate, or coffee; four guimauves (French marshmallows); six macarons; two savory madeleines; four finger sandwiches; and two pastries. I ordered Thé Jardin Bleu Royale tea; rose, Marie Antoinette, and hazelnut macarons; a smoked salmon sandwich and a cheese sandwich; and a Saint-Honoré Rose-Framboise pastry. It was a delightful experience and the food was amazing, but there were a few aspects I didn’t love. For one, the finger sandwiches were stale and bland, and the portion sizes for the afternoon tea could have been a bit bigger. Beyond that, it reminded me of my passion for food, which has been cultivated overtime through the various cuisines I’ve been exposed to since childhood at home and through travel.
But my interest in high tea, something quintessentially British, stems from my nostalgic memories of England, where most of my dad’s side of the family lives. For as long as I can remember, I’ve gone to the U.K. almost every year, typified by visits to relatives where ostentatious shows of gift-giving and paying when going out are bound to happen. Toward the end of each visit, I could feel my voice metamorphosing into something resembling a British accent but not quite. In a nutshell, the U.K. is like a second home to me, something pleasantly familiar yet different enough to pique my fancy. As stereotypical as it sounds, I love how the atmosphere in English towns feels so quaint and charming yet heavy with history. As with many other elements that constitute the British experience, the culture surrounding teatime is rife with history and is something Americans today often associate with contemporary British culture.
The history of tea time is quite fascinating, but there is not exactly a consensus about the definition of this seemingly time-old tradition. The two kinds of tea, high tea and afternoon tea, although both typically eaten in the late afternoon, have differing origins that must not be disregarded. High tea arose during the Industrial Revolution in England when factory and labor workers were working long hours due to lack of labor laws, and came home during the late afternoon. They would have bits and pieces of various snack items such as scones, pastries, and finger sandwiches along with a cup of tea, since most of the time they could not afford a full sumptuous meal like the upper class could. The term “high tea” also refers to the high chairs that were used and the heartier dishes that were made for this kind of tea.
Afternoon tea, on the other hand, was a meal eaten among the upper classes. Tea as a meal was introduced to England during the 1840s when the 7th Duchess of Bedford would invite her friends over often when she became hungry in the late afternoon (isn’t that all of us?). In fact, it was the Earl of Sandwich who came up with the idea of putting a filling between two slices of bread to be served to the Duchess. The social meaning behind afternoon tea has evolved to be a lot more complex and became not only a time for the very rich to snack. It was also used as a time for them to gossip about other people and in the process, gain important information that could be used to detect who was friend or foe. Afternoon tea was also an opportunity for suitors to visit a household so that their marriage ability for the family’s daughter could be determined.
The virtue of English tea time lies not in the delicacies that comprises it, but rather the sorts of attitudes that it is capable of engendering. It can force us to take a moment in our day to relax and reflect without the interference of other obligations that often plague us. Call it what you will, but it can be a form, albeit a superficial one, of self-care. Living in an era where a wellness lifestyle has been highly emphasized upon through social influencers and celebrities, the pressure to maintain a certain beauty and fitness standard has become paralyzing. Health has become capitalized upon as an exclusive elite commodity with the advent of the aspirational class, an elite class defined by sociocultural capital rather than just wealth. After all, why would phenomena such as food deserts exist if there wasn’t an inequitable distribution of high quality food items in supermarkets based on their location within certain neighborhoods?
Tea is something that began as a meal for the rich, but it has become more prevalent, especially in Europe and American cities. Although it retains a facade of being bourgeois, or more informally, bougie, regular people are also able to eat at eateries serving afternoon tea. Despite the exorbitant price tags of afternoon tea packages that many restaurants and cafes place, many, especially urban inhabitants are willingness to pay the price to experience a piece of history for a couple of hours. The special and magical experience associated with tea, however, is something you just can’t put a price on.