Tea in the Afternoon

Imagine his chagrin!

Bodhidharma, the Great White Buddha and founder of the Zen sect, fell asleep during one of his sacred meditations.

Alas, the little nap so upset the beloved saint that he cut off his eyelids.

This dramatic and drastic action turned out to be, surprisingly, a good thing for us if not for him. Those very eyelids fell on fertile soil, took root, and grew into tea plants—the source of Mother Nature’s favorite remedy for sleepiness.

True or not, the ancient tale gives some idea of the esteem in which tea has been held almost from the beginning of time.

There is evidence that tea and tea drinking had already enjoyed a history of at least 1,500 years when Lu Yu wrote his famous book, The Classic of Tea, in the eighth century. This book has done more than any other text to elevate tea and tea drinking to its unique place of veneration in certain societies. It outlines a demanding ritual with which the author would surround the deceptively simple act of making tea. To a Confucianist like Lun Yu, ritual was essential to the good life. As Francis Ross Carpenter explains in the 1974 introduction to his translation, this practice “was not an end in itself, but it was . . . an outward form or behavioral expression of an inward ethic.”

In today’s world two ritualized procedures still flourish around drinking this ancient beverage.

The first is the intricate and elaborately orchestrated Japanese tea ceremony, which is justifiably described as a household sacrament of aesthetics, economics, and etiquette. With its precise requirements for the setting (“the plaster on the walls is to be plain grey, and put on in a manner suitable to the size of the rooms”), utensils, flower arrangements, and every other detail, this is a liturgy of a very specialized kind.

Less precisely ritualized but formal in an informal way is the British tradition of afternoon tea. Think porcelain cups and small silver spoons, crumpets toasted in the fireplace and hot oatmeal scones. Think of Lady Marjorie’s drawing room in Upstairs, Downstairs.

It is generally agreed that Catherine of Braganza (1638–1705), the Portuguese infanta and wife of King Charles II (1630–1685), popularized tea drinking in Europe. A later aristocrat, however, is credited with introducing afternoon tea in the grand manner. Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford (1783–1857), was the lady responsible for this particular repast.

During the middle of the eighteenth-century, the English had two main meals: breakfast (generally ale, bread and beef) and dinner—a meal which for the upper and middle classes had shifted from a noontime refreshment to an elaborate evening extravaganza served fashionably late.

In the very early years of the nineteenth century, Anna, governed by this custom of late dinner, found herself becoming quite hungry in the late afternoon. She took to having secret snacks in her chambers, but her secret got out. Contrary to causing a giggle, the idea was quickly imitated by the fashionable ladies surrounding her and before long it had spread to other strata of that status conscious society.

By the late 1880s, afternoon tea had become a well-ensconced pastime of the upper and upper-middle classes. It fulfilled many purposes: socializing, event planning, introductions, informal business meetings, and gossiping. This late afternoon ritual became known as low tea because it was served at the low point in the afternoon. The name also may have come from the use of a low table in front of a sofa from which tea was often served.

Not surprisingly, given the ceremonial nature of the occasion, women often changed into long, soft, diaphanous tea gowns, outfits that were invariably loose-waisted so that they could eat their fill. These hostesses became high priestesses of a sort, adept at dealing with the impedimenta: tea caddies, teapoys, tea cozies, special plates, cake stands, muffineers, strainers, and a host of other objects from the practical to the truly esoteric.

In those late Victorian and Edwardian days, the general outline of the menu for afternoon tea took form. Bite-sized sandwiches, scones and crumpets, special sweets and savories, jams and sweet butter were all to be had in abundance.

By the middle of the next century, things had become more casual but they still maintained a certain traditional standard.

Barbara Pym, that most English of twentieth-century novelists, describes the preparations for an upper-middle-class tea in her 1953 novel Jane and Prudence:

The next day after lunch Flora got out the best tea service and began washing the cups and plates, for it was some time since they had been used. Lovingly she swished the pink-and-gold china in the hot soapy water and dried each piece carefully on a clean cloth. Tea could be laid on the low table by the fire, she decided, with the cloth with the wide lace border. Mrs. Glaze had eventually been persuaded to make a Victoria sandwich cake, there were little cakes from the Spinning Wheel and chocolate biscuits., and Flora intended to cut some cucumber sandwiches and what she thought of as “wafer-thin” bread and butter.

In less rarefied settings tea also took on the status of a meal. High tea is essentially the working-class proper late day repast—a substantial offering of various cooked dishes accompanied by pints and pints of strong sweet brew.

It should be noted that in America high tea is often mistakenly the name given to what would be referred to as afternoon tea in the United Kingdom. But in this case it would seem sensible to go with the Brits. As Jamie Shalleck put it in her impressive tome Tea (New York: Viking Press, 1971), “American contributions to the art of tea drinking are not cultivated to reassure the tea purist. Tea bags, iced tea, instant tea, and canned tea are among the dubious American claims to tea inventiveness.”

Maybe most Americans have never quite gotten over taxation without representation. For those who have and are interested in experimenting with the various varieties available, there are many domestic merchants both in cities and online who specialize in supplying a wide variety of teas and accessories. One such dealer, Upton Tea Imports of Holliston, Massachusetts (www.uptontea.com), even offers a Chinese brew called Bohea Imperial Organic and tells us “this style of tea was imported into the American colonies in the 1700s and was the famous Bohea tea of the Boston Tea Party.” Albeit expensive, it would be a delicious treat at afternoon tea anyplace.

In today’s world, high tea certainly still flourishes, but even in England afternoon tea has suffered something of a decline. Since the end of World War II, life has sped up to the point that time for such ceremonies is hard to come by. Moreover, a lot of fashionable people today want desperately to stay slim, and the very mention of all those luscious treats can send the determinedly svelte into fits of apoplexy.

But tea itself has not lost its symbolic or emotional status in England. “I’ll put the kettle on” still signals the beginning of a quiet shared time with a friend or friends or at least with someone with whom it would be a good idea to remain on friendly terms. And it is hard to imagine that the joys of proper afternoon tea could ever disappear or be forgotten in the British Isles. Certainly anyone who has ever had tea at the Ritz in London or at Bettys in Harrogate or the Pump Room in Bath could not imagine a world without such civilized ceremonies.

Chinese or Indian? Strong or weak? One lump or two?

Issue Twenty Two