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High Tea, Low Tea
or
What the Polite Young Woman Does
With Her Pinkie
Whilst Drinking Tea

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by Diana Viola

As you might guess, we are having fun iwith the concept of tea - high tea or low tea.  We invite you to make a cup of tea, sip as you read.  Be careful,though, we may set you to laughing and you will need to be careful if the pinky is to curl properly.

Let us begin with Oscar Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest.  Wilde understood the importance of pinkies.

Gwendolyn: You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

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Gwendolyn Discovers Sugar Lumps

The above line, from Oscar Wilde's most popular play, is spoken by Miss Gwendolyn Fairfax to her 'best' friend, Cecily Cardew. Gwendolyn would speak quietly, with the restraint befitting a young woman so well-bred that she could raise teacup to lips with perfect etiquette. Tea rituals are serious business.

The Lifting of the Tea Cup

Gwendolyn would raise cup and saucer to her mouth with her left hand bearing the weight, and the fingers of her right hand steadying the cup by its handle. Without any movement of her head, she would lower her eyes to guide the cup to her mouth, and then take the most delicate of sips. Only then she would discover the offending lumps of sugar.

The Importance of Pinkies

Gwendolyn's little finger would be curled under and away from the heat of the cup which might otherwise inflict a burn on her delicate skin. The little finger would never be arched upward. Arching would be deemed a sign of extreme arrogance. Should you know of moments extreme enough to demand an arched pinkie, contact us immediately. pinky crises

We are delighted to have learned of Melissa Mitchell's pinky crises: please read about tea and crumpets and a woeful pinky situation

High Tea or Low Tea?

As shocking as it might first appear, the well-bred misses, Gwendolyn and Cecily, would have been enjoying low tea. The words 'low' and 'high' refer to the tables from which either tea meal is eaten. Low tea, served in a sitting room, of course, was a light repast, taken at four in the afternoon when the circadian rhythms of the body fall to a natural low. At this table, one would find slender tea sandwiches, which would be followed by fruit or sorbet to clear the palate, then by sweet scones or pastries. An elegant cake might be the centerpiece, always standing tall on its pedestal. Since many of these foods would be eaten with three (and only three) fingers , a delicate finger bowl, perhaps with rose petals floating in water, would be in evidence. The tea pot would be silver, not a casual one of china, sugar would be served with tongs. This tea was a privilege of that class of people created by the industrial revolution - the leisure class.

To not offend the sensibilities of the two elegant young ladies, we must speak quietly when we talk of high tea. Again, the word high referred to a table, this one in a dining room table, and it would be loaded with substantial dinner dishes - meats, cheese, breads, perhaps the classic shepherd's pie or steak and kidney pie. This meal would be the one eaten by     -shhh, whisper lest the young ladies are close -     the working classes.

From India to China to England to the Drink of a Nation

Tea probably originated in the area of the Burma-India border. Legend holds that it was brought to China by Buddhist monks. Though tea dates back as far as 2700 BC, the real popularity of tea among the Chinese masses occurred around 618 - 901 AD during the T'ang Dynasty. Lu Yu's Book of Tea (the Ch'a Ching) dates from the 8th century and is still read today.

Tea may have first reached England in 1663 when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza. Part of her dowry was tea which was packed in large chests soon known as tea chests, of course. Tea drinking became popular at Court quite rapidly. Initially expensive, a small amount of tea goes a long way and it soon became popular with everyone, replacing ale as the national quaff.

The origin of the mid-afternoon tea is credited to Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, who conquered the weak feeling at four in the afternoon by having tea and breadstuffs. In time she invited friends and the tea party was born. 1840 is the given date for this historic moment, and by 1880, the country was following the Duchess' lead, and tea shops were in vogue.

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How to Make Tea Sandwiches

There are a few caveats:

Choose thinly sliced, sandwich bread of a tight grain.

A thin layer of butter is necessary to seal the bread from the moist ingredients.

No polite member of society should encounter crusts. Cut away all crusts

Please cut each tea sandwich into thirds to ensure that fingers alone (only three, remember?) can perform the task of lifting to mouth. Clutching a sandwich with the entire hand is unacceptably working class.

Tea Sandwiches

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Put an unsliced loaf of white or brown bread (preferably both) bread into the freezer for one hour. This will make slicing easier. Remove crust from bread and slice very thinly. Fill with any of the following: egg salad, seafood salad, cream cheese and cucumber, cream cheese and watercress, turkey or chicken salad. Cut in diagonals or into various shapes using cookie cutters.

Asparagus rolls: Place a cooked asparagus on thin, thin slice of buttered brown bread. Roll up.

Smoked salmon rolls: Place slice of smoked salmon on thin slice of buttered bread. Sprinkle with lemon, roll and wrap tightly in plastic roll. Before serving, slice into rounds.

Ribbon sandwiches: Layering pieces of buttered bread, fill each layer with different fillings: egg yolks for a yellow shade, cream cheese for a white shade, watercress for a green shade. Wrap in plastic , refrigerate at least three hours. Cut into slices before serving.

Scones: May be spread with lemon curd, with jam or "Devonshire" Cream, also called clotted cream. This is a thick cream made by heating unpasteurized milk and keeping it hot for about an hour. Yellow clots form on the top. Though we can't have the original, there is a 'mock' clotted cream.

With little finger curled under, you are now prepared to indulge in that moment best described by Henry James: "There are few hours more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."

 

 

Recipes to serve with tea:

 

 

 

 
 
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