Balliol College Dining Hall, Oxford. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. Licence: CC License: CC BY-SA 3.0
High Tea growing up as a child
High Tea was not an everyday meal in our family. It was a treat on Sundays evenings, having had a large Sunday Roast in the middle of the day. It was the one meal of the week when my father’s wishes came to the fore. Often he was in charge of its preparation. One part of this informal meal was usually hot. His favourite was Welsh Rarebit. Other options included scrambled eggs on toast or any left-overs from earlier meals in the week. It was very much a family meal and eaten at the kitchen table.
One of my enduring memories was my father freshening the bread – often a stale half-loaf. This was done by moistening the bread with a bit of water, wrapping the cut end in foil and heating it in a low heat oven to try and bring it back to life. This was a time when shops were all closed on Sundays.
High Tea is eaten at a dining table but there is little ceremony involved in table settings. There are no consecutive courses. It is almost an assemblage of food (as with an afternoon Tea). It is aligned to Tea the evening meal, but not the same.
Obscure origins of High Tea
Unlike the afternoon social ritual , High Tea is an informal meal. The main purpose is to eat food, usually in a family setting. It is a casual meal and one in which both parents and children participate. It is rare to go to a public place for High Tea. Fortnum & Mason is unusual in that it includes a High Tea option on the Diamond Jubilee Salon menu.
For me, High Tea has links to the dining spaces of the English boarding school, University dining rooms and legal institutions.
Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes, 1857, describes the experiences of Tom Brown at Rugby School in the 1830s. On his first day at school,Tom describes the meals. He has an enormous breakfast with kidneys and meat in an inn on the journey. The midday meal (dinner)was roasted meat with bread. Supper was bread, cheese and ale. Tea consisted of tea served with bread and butter, plus anything the boys might buy at the local tuck shop. As he was flush with pocket money, Tom’s new school friends encouraged him to buy ‘murphies’ (hot baked- potatoes) and sausages. These were then toast over the fire in the dining hall back at school and shared out.
This tea was eaten in the school dining hall. My conjecture is that there is a link between the term High table as known in educational establishments. it is the implicit association of High Table with male educational establishments be it the school, University or the legal Inns of Court. The meal or snack is quite fluid in structure but there is a sense of nice things for boys to eat.
From the school to the home
This more substantial meal or treat seems to have moved into the domestic space from the institutional learning space, almost a home from home of sorts. It was embraced into the home, gaining the prefix High to clearly indicate its difference to the social tea.
As a concept, High Tea has almost disappeared today. In our family it was a combination of the afternoon tea and the light evening meal supper. Sundays were the day of the week when we had a large roast for the midday meal that extended well into the afternoon. It was very much a family meal of the domestic family home, having evolved from the places of learning of the professional classes.