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High tea and other in between meals

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"The high tea is a meal that must be eaten and the afternoon tea is one we have because we can." Helen Razer

That picture above is sort of how I remember high tea - although dad was often away at sea, so not there, and there were two other children - my sister and I. In fact as I ponder on it even more I think we only had high tea at the weekends - around 5.00 or 6.00 in the afternoon - a meal consisting of something like baked beans on toast, or maybe egg and chips - although that is perhaps too substantial. More than bread and jam though. The big meal of the day was at lunchtime at the weekends - hence high tea to fill the stomach a bit before the end of the day. During the week we called the meal at the end of the day tea I think, maybe dinner. I honestly can't remember, and this was a proper meal. We did have school lunches - for a while that was just a sandwich that I took to school - but mostly it was the school provided hot two-course meal. Nevertheless mum used to cook us a hot meal in the evenings too. She must have done because I remember that it was often shepherd's pie on Mondays, fish and chips on Fridays with other things - mostly stews - throughout the week. So yes - I think to me high tea means beans on toast - at the weekend.

These days if you feed 'high tea' into Google you will get a whole lot of pictures like this. Elegant tiers of fancy little cakes and sandwiches, tea in porcelain china cups, silver teaspoons and teapots, flowers and often a glass of bubbly too. It's an industry. An enjoyable over the top treat, most often in a posh hotel with friends. And you do this in the middle of the afternoon, which is why it sometimes gets called afternoon tea. I wonder if you dare ask for coffee instead? Today 'high' has been taken to mean posh, although:

"'high' is never to be understood as a synonym for 'posh'" - Helen Razer

In fact high tea is the very opposite of posh, historically speaking. Afternoon tea was that meal with the accoutrements shown above, indulged in by the middle-class and aristocrats alike. Mostly enjoyed by ladies who sat at 'low' tables and gossiped. Well I imagine that's what they mostly talked about. Dress was relatively informal - well in their terms anyway.

It is not high tea.

"'high tea' is not the thing you take at two or three and is unlikely to be a relaxing affair. It’s the thing you put in yourself to stay alive." Helen Razer

High tea was the meal that the poor ate after a long and hard day at work. They would have been extremely hungry and this was the meal that sustained them, and reunited them with their family at the end of the day. Yes there would have been tea - and bread, and hopefully something more substantial like meat pies and cheese. Whatever they could afford. It was eaten at the 'high' table - a dining table rather than an informal and low tea table. We call them coffee tables now. I suppose actually there is not much difference in the height, although I think sometimes back then the poor might have eaten at high counters - maybe if they had no home to go to. In a wealthier house, the table used for afternoon tea would not have been as elaborate as the proper dining table. Whatever the table 'high' refers to height not to a class rating.

Why am I thinking about high tea? Well on Saturday I think I am feeding my family an early dinner after a day with the grandchildren. So I thought it should probably be a lighter meal than a 'proper' dinner and the term high tea popped into my head. Initially all I could think of was beans on toast, but this is really not what is required. Well actually now that I think about it I guess one could concoct some modern, Middle-eastern possibly, version of beans on toast. A quick look turned up these various possibilities and some of them look very tempting:

So there are a few thoughts. I could think on that Or maybe a fancy toasted sandwich cooked in the oven. However, I think I'm veering towards my easy standby - quiche. Two or three different ones. Easy. Plus salad and then a cheese course. Now which are the children more likely to eat? Or individual chicken pies? A bit of a faff I think. Still time to think about that. Fritters, pancakes ...? There are so many possibilities these days aren't there? Lots of modern day brunch things would fit the bill.

David and I will therefore have eaten earlier than usual so what about supper too for us oldies as we collapse in our chairs in front of the television after the children have gone? Supper to me is something very, very light. My father would make us all a cup of cocoa and a cream cracker cheese sandwich before we went to bed when he was home. That was supper to me. However, my 'research' today seems to imply that 'supper' is a thing - in England anyway. An actual meal:

"Back in London, I find myself using the word "supper" quite a lot, usually to suggest the sort of informal, just 'a bunch of incredibly cool friends round the kitchen table' soirée I aspire to, with something I've knocked up from the Ottolenghi cookbook." Helen Fielding

I suppose that sort of thing could be food you eat after a night out at the cinema or a play but surely it wouldn't be a very full meal? Dips and bread, nibbly things surely. But then it's a long time since I have indulged in that kind of thing. Although now that I think about it, after our film society films we would often go to our friends' house - they lived nearby - and chat for ages over bread and cheese, and pickles and things, over a glass of wine and a cup of coffee. Now that could be called supper.

"Supper is simply the comforting end point to which the whole day has been leading." Bee Wilson

And I haven't even mentioned elevenses. Another day.


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