Tea Time?

“Since we are not all ladies of leisure, the idea of taking a cream tea as part of a day out is very important as this really shows that we are having a day off and being hedonistic.”

My first introduction to English Teatime was in—of all places—Lincoln, Nebraska.  In the city’s historic Haymarket District, there was (and still is as far as I know) a charming little store run by a charming little woman: Victoria’s Cousin.  The shop mostly seemed to sell Crabtree & Evelyn, but also offered Afternoon Tea.  About twice a year, the women of University of Nebraska, Lincoln’s Graduate Theatre Program would itch for a Gwendolyn and Cecily moment.  We would rummage through our wardrobes looking for the clothes we generally reserved for interviews, steal a pair of gloves from costume stock, top it all off with the only corsage any of us had worn since high school prom and haul our fabulously rose-lotion-scented butts down to Victoria’s Cousin for finger sandwiches, scones and Earl Grey.  In most respects, Victoria’s Cousin was not too far off the mark in terms of authenticity.  Though I have discovered since moving to England that Teatime is relative…and quite confusing.

Raised as I was by BBC imports on PBS, I thought Teatime meant raised pinkies and cakes on doilies.  Imagine my expression when my at-the-time-boyfriend-now-husband suggested at six o’clock at night that we order pizza for tea.  Pizza for tea?  Isn’t this the wrong time for tea?  Where’s my doily?  Where’s my jam pot?  What are you talking about, man?  It was difficult enough living in the Midwest where the dinner versus lunch divide caused me no end of dizziness, now I had to juggle definitions of Lunch, Dinner, Supper and Tea that seemed to be almost random in their usage.  It soon became my linguistic, cultural and culinary mission to figure out what British people mean when they say “Teatime”.

When you move to a completely new country, even one where you allegedly speak the language, you have to accept that you will ask stupid questions and feel like an idiot for at least two years.  It was in this spirit of child-like discovery that I entered into my Quest to Define Teatime.  I was aware of the Victorian model of meal times (also adopted by Hobbits everywhere): Breakfast, Elevenses, Luncheon, Tea, Dinner, Supper; but I set out to investigate what Tea means to Brits in the Twenty-First Century.

At first, I assumed that the variations would be geographically based, as I believe they are in America.  To a certain extent, geography does play a part.  The people I spoke to from the Southern areas of England largely echoed my stereotype of teatime—a light meal served around four o’clock involving some kind of little sandwiches, cake and hot steeped beverage.  The closer these people lived to London, the more consistent this understanding of the word became.  These same people, again, mostly from the South East, defined Lunch as a light mid-day meal and Dinner as the main meal in the evening.

However,  those from the Midlands and the North all divided the eating day in the following manner: Breakfast in the morning (thank goodness something remains fairly universal), Dinner at midday, Tea in the evening and Supper just before bed.  And the differences do not end there: meal size and the level of formality play a big part in how one labels one’s food (or libels one’s food I hear my father jibe).

My friend Dave offered this helpful commentary on the subject:

Dinner is the main hot meal of the day, usually at about 6pm. Lunch is a lighter meal in the middle of the day. Tea is a lighter meal in the early evening if you’ve had your main hot meal in the middle of the day. Supper is a hot drink and a biscuit at 9pm.  “Lunch” is always a midday meal, “Supper” an evening one, and “Tea” either evening or late afternoon.  “Dinner” is usually the evening meal, but it always means a big meal; so if, on a particular day, you have a big midday meal and only a very light meal in the evening, then the big midday meal is “Dinner”. So usually, your big meal is in the evening and you only have a light meal midday, and this is: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner.  Sometimes, on a day when you have got plenty of time midday, you have a great big meal then, and only a light meal (usually heavy on the salad, but with cake as well) in the evening, and this is: Breakfast, Lunch or Dinner, Tea or Supper.

And, at this point, I pray for death wondering why I ever thought it was a good idea to ask my friends to explain the intricacies of English custom.  Others, including London-based Yorkshire-born Tony, felt that where you ate your meal was just as important as when or what you ate.  “Tea is just your evening meal eaten at home. If you go out it becomes Dinner.  At home, Dinner is eaten around midday, but if you go out it becomes Lunch.”  It is true that I never hear anyone say they are “going out for Tea”, unless they mean tea and scones Tea.  So not only do I now have to take into consideration the size and formality, but also the location.

Claire is an anthropologist—which means talking about things like What is Teatime is pretty much her raison d’etre.  It was Claire who first really opened my eyes to the fact that the definitions of meal times have far more to do with class than they do with what’s on your plate, where you are or what time of day it is.

Whether you have lunch dinner or tea is still seen by some to be a definite indicator of class.  I invited some colleagues around for Tea a few weeks ago.  One of them absolutely assumed that I meant cakes and scones at five when we finished work.  This is ridiculous, as anyone at work cannot take afternoon tea properly, so most people would assume that I meant Dinner, and not Tea.  To all intents and purposes it looked as if she was making the point that the meal is properly called Dinner.  This then made her look a bit like a snob for pointing out, albeit sideways that I was using the wrong term.  The majority use the terms interchangeably, and to make a stand looks silly these days.

Presumably, Claire’s work colleague, if she was not raised by a lady of leisure, was at least raised by someone who wanted to give the appearance of someone who could be a lady of leisure if give the proper opportunity.  And it is that very issue of status or perceived status that is at the heart of what Teatime means. Claire, though she spent most of her young and adult life in the Northern areas of the country, now lives in Kent, which is near enough to be within commuting distance of London.

With all this in mind, it now makes sense that people from the traditionally “working class” North would classify Tea as a meal in the evening and not an afternoon affair.  Someone who can take tea and cake at four o’clock is not someone who has to bring in the sheep, work the mines or live by the factory time clock.  Similarly, the more affluent and status-conscious Southerners are used to thinking of Teatime as the afternoon break before the proper evening Dinner they dress up for—or, at least they do in Downton Abbey.

This brought my attention to the lunch-dinner divide I encountered so often in the Midwest.  Almost invariably, it was people from a rural background who referred to the mid-day meal as Dinner, meaning that the meal was quite substantial and not just the sandwich and bag of chips/crisps, which has come to define lunch in our busy modern world.  Similarly, everyone I interviewed agreed that, regardless of time of day, Dinner is a large meal, while Lunch is a smaller but snobbier way of labelling the midday meal.  Not exactly a strict class division, but still a parallel was drawn in my mind I had not seen before.

So where does this leave me?  How do I negotiate these politically and socially charged definitions of Teatime?  After careful consideration and reviewing my research of interviews, I decided that the common connection was that Tea is a light meal—not something heavy with many courses resulting in a loosening of trousers and a recuperating nap (stay tuned for future posts on the beauty that is Sunday Lunch).  It can be formal or it can be casual, depending on who you are, where you are and how you are, but it is always light.

And if you chance to visit Harrogate in North Yorkshire, Teatime is Betty’s!


4 thoughts on “Tea Time?

  1. I think you have captured the subject very well. “Tea” indeed means different things to different people depending on where and how they grew up. Tea for me was only served on Sundays and was similar to Betty’s. Supper was the main meal of the day but we went out for dinner. The tea at Betty’s is “High Tea” as apposed to tea which is a lighter meal served for the kids when they come home from school before the adults have dinner later in the evening.. High tea comes with Clotted cream, Tea comes with eggs and chips .. Oh its so confusing.

  2. and pretty soon I get to visit Betty’s…where I will probably have scones and clotted cream!!! Unless I go for a rosti! And you can call tea anything you like as long as it isn’t Liptons.

  3. Love it !
    Tea here in Australia is the evening meal at home, its dinner if you’re going out. And in the workplace we have afternoon tea and morning tea which is a cuppa and a biccie or piece of cake.


    …I did love high tea at Betty’s !

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