Proper Tea

Informant was raised in an upper middle class household in suburban Connecticut, by parents of English and German extraction.  Her grandfather was one of the first of the ‘Mad Men’ and her parents were the first wealthy generation of her family.  She attended boarding school in upstate New York, and went home on the weekends.  Her family’s emphasis on understanding how to assemble and consume a proper English-style tea seems to emphasize in-group identification with the upper middle class, as opposed to their actual, slightly more humble, origins.

I think we were the last class of the Victorian era, because my mother had the last of the Victorian headmistresses. Part of being a young lady or gentleman was participating in afternoon tea, you know, correctly.  She made sure we learned how to prepare and serve and take tea the in the proper way. It was just afternoon tea, but there were special occasions when we got high tea as well.

High tea is supper, but early with tea, sandwiches, scones and crumpets and whatnot, and it’s savory as well as sweet. It’s a light meal. I spent Sunday afternoons being taught how to pour tea and eat a sandwich like a lady and not like a street urchin.

First of all, you have a pot of tea, and you don’t have tea bags, you don’t have mugs with tea bags in them, you have a pot of properly brewed tea, tea spoons, cups, saucers, cloth napkins… this training did not include treats because it’d have blown our little minds.

You always pour the cup on the saucer, you hand it to your companion or companions, you don’t just put things down in front of them, it’s about graciousness, not, you know, feeding. So you have a dish of sugar, tongs or a spoon for the sugar, and a proper small china pitcher to contain the cream, all of which you pass from hand to hand, never letting anything touch the table if it is about to be used.

You have to have a designated host or hostess, or it’s just chaos and pandemonium. That is the person who, you know, pours the tea and hands you—HANDS YOU—your cup on the saucer and all of that sort of thing.

Context: interviewer and informant were sharing an informal afternoon tea, and informant became agitated when interviewer failed to pass a sugar bowl correctly.