Tempest in a teapot: Afternoon tea vs. high tea


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The royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton has inspired a trove of articles about Britain: tips for traveling to London; finding a bit of Britain closer to home; a look at some less-than-regal wedding souvenirs; even a commentary from a British expatriate.

Invariably, articles about British culture mention tea. Afternoon tea, that is. However, a couple of recent articles have referred to the snack with pastries and finger sandwiches as ‘high tea,’ which readers have quickly pointed out is another meal.


The confusion first popped up in a photo caption in the April 3 Travel section with an article about a special royal-wedding-themed event at the Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria, Canada. The caption with a photo of a silver tea service said that ‘high tea’ was a tradition at the Empress.

Reader Burton Karson of Corona del Mar wrote, ‘Your writer of captions and your copy editor should know that ‘high tea’ is a working man’s supper that includes a hot dish, and that the elegant tea referred to here is ‘afternoon tea.’’

It happened again Monday, in a headline on the front page of the Calendar section.

A commentary by Simon Reynolds, a British music critic and author living in South Pasadena, argued that Americans are more excited about the royal wedding than Brits because they’re enthralled with a fairy tale image of Britain: ‘A fantasy land of castles and cucumber sandwiches, trusty valets and well-spoken villains.’

Another line of the article was pulled out into larger type: ‘More than any other institution, PBS is responsible for maintaining the illusion that Britain is a country where everybody takes afternoon tea.’

But the headline read: ‘Kings, castles and high tea.’

Andy Gilchrist of Manhattan Beach wrote that ‘it’s a major faux pas to confuse ‘afternoon tea’ with ‘high tea’! They are very different servings, but since ‘high’ sounds more uppity, the misunderstanding is common.’

Calendar copy chief Steve Elders said the headline intended to set a mood for the piece; the subheadline read, ‘Americans love the illusion of a quaint, fairy tale Britain. Blame films and PBS.’ Unfortunately, however, ‘high tea’ isn’t synonymous with ‘afternoon tea.’


As Gilchrist suggested, the name ‘high tea’ does not refer to high class, but to how the meal is served. High tea is served at a high dinner table or counter, while afternoon or ‘low tea’ is traditionally served on low tables in a sitting room.

After the fairy tale royal wedding, it’s much more likely that Prince William and his bride, like guests at the Empress hotel, will enjoy afternoon tea.

-- Deirdre Edgar