Babcia, my grandmother, was staying with us during her biannual visit. At 10 years old, I knew two things for certain. One, she was going to make me drink warm cow milk before bed. And two, afternoon tea was, to my delight, inevitable. She called to me and my younger sisters in her familiar Polish accent as she set the table with delicate dishware and a hand-painted teapot. (In the event that we were short a teacup, we found that the “what happens in Vegas…” souvenir shot glass served just as well.) The joys of afternoon tea included pastries fit for fairies, etiquette lessons and refined apparel. Best of all, it was a time of airing our elementary school grievances. We relished in our benign conversations. A decade later, it hasn’t lost its magic. Teatime is a historical international custom that continues to steep unity among people by facilitating the opportunity for one to sip as they listen and sip as they’re heard.
In order for the reader/potential teatime connoisseur to be well versed in tea knowledge, due education is necessary. Slip into some pantyhose — gentlemen included. Shit’s about to get fancy. First and foremost, there is a difference between afternoon tea and high tea. While both originated in England, the two represent two different economic classes. Afternoon tea, also referred to as low tea, became popular among the upper class and royalty in the 1840s. Its only purpose was to hold over the wealthy between their lunch and dinner. Those who participated wore their casual corsets under billowing skirts to partake in light dining on a blooming patio or in a sunroom. Conversely, high tea was initially intended for the working class after a long day of being exploited for labor. It featured tea accompanied by a hefty meal to be served at a high dining table. There was nothing luxurious about it, yet high tea is advertised as so in Europe. This is solely because “high tea” rather than “afternoon tea” audibly appeals more to the hoity-toity cravings of tourists.
Growing up in Poland, my grandmother described coffee as a luxury. It was served only to guests. Consequently, black tea was the most cost effective option for a caffeinated libation. In the morning, she would mix it with milk to create bawarka before she had to “pośpiesz się” out the door. The tea was paired with small sandwiches or cookies on all other occasions; it was never served in a mug, rather a porcelain cup. Tea was her Facebook prototype and to this day, remains a substitute for digital social platform as it stimulates her relationships. “My Babcia would take us out for tea on Sundays after mass,” she said. “Those cafes were beautifully decorated and smelled heavenly of sugar.” With a spirit of gratitude, I am honored to inherit and preserve this tradition on behalf of my grandmother and great-grandmother.
Woefully, the historic roots of afternoon tea aren’t as sentimental. It was, in fact, created to tide over gluttonous royalty. Nonetheless, there is still proper etiquette to follow while you shovel petit fours down your gullet at light speed. The dress code is a relaxed kind of uptight. It’s the kind that calls you darling over the phone and assures that you’ll fair well in anything you choose to wear; then, you show up to tea, and the majority of your party grimaces at the mere sight of you. The environment is a natural platform for timeless fashion. Here is how you can’t go wrong: channel “Pride & Prejudice.” Add a string of pearls, triple check that you have enough lace and walk through a mist of perfume of which you cannot pronounce the name. In regards to methods of consumption, it is rarely ever acceptable to dip a pastry, cookie, biscuit in your tea. (If you must have them both at once, I suggest the ol’ sip and shove. Sip the tea, set the cup down, shove the snack in your mouth.) When it comes time to stir the tea, it must be done in a clockwise manner. Do not clink the spoon to the glass. You will be read for filth. Lastly, there is a widespread fallacy that guests are to hold their cups with their pinkies up. This is not permitted during afternoon tea, nor has it ever been as it increases the likelihood of one dropping their cup due to imbalance. Put those pinkies down.
Alas, no matter how many etiquette rules you bend, you will still reap the benefits of the unification that tea breeds. Whether you’re spilling it at a family reunion, pouring it for a neighbor, dumping it into a harbor or sipping it thoughtfully on your balcony with a roommate, you’re experiencing the connections created by a cup of tea. When it comes time to make a pot, choose the tea you favor the most. For Babcia, this is Rooibos. My Mimi enjoys herbal mint. East Texans only know Red Diamond. My best friend takes Earl Grey with simple syrup. And I prefer a Long Island. There is a direct correlation between the tea preferences of each person aforementioned and their personalities. I only know this because I’ve engaged in fellowship with each of them over a cup at some point in time. Afternoon tea has provided earnest insight for many of my relationships and business encounters.
Gluttony and gloating aside, the true intention of teatime is to enable folks to integrate their energy and have a brush with peace, warm serenity — together. Here, aesthetics married with etiquette prompt mindful conversation. They incentivize compliments and comments charged with compassion. But the tea brings the people together. Good before a cold front. Great after a night of questionable decisions. You burn the tip of your tongue because you couldn’t wait for your cup to cool, and your friends begin to tell war stories of soup dumpling and pizza burns without missing a beat. You watch your grandmother stir her herbal blend, decaf because she has a debilitating disease that is triggered by caffeine. You sit in waiting as your lover brews your favorite because they can’t wait to share the victories of their day with you. That comfortable heat you feel at the center of your chest amid these interactions with people once strangers, now confidantes — that. That’s the tea.