Friday, November 02, 2007

A Poetic Tea.

November 2 …

English is such a rich language that it always seems a shame when we force a word to do double duty for two different concepts. I am thinking of the word “tea” at present. It means, of course, a beverage essential to life, made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis. It also means a meal, and therein lies another confusion – when we are invited to “tea”, is that High Tea or Low Tea?

I make a plea for the re-cycling of another good old English word for the meal, to enable “tea” to be reserved solely for the life-giving beverage. I suggest the word “voide”. According to the OED this means “A collation consisting of wine accompanied by spices, comfits, or the like, partaken of before retiring to rest or the departure of guests; a repast of this nature following upon a feast or fuller meal; a parting dish.” This meal does sound more in the nature of a supper, but we don’t need a new word for supper - and in any case, High Tea often does duty as Supper. Certainly, the word is based on some old French word (a gift of those invading Normans in 1066, no doubt) – and invokes the idea of a gap or space, such as that left by the aforesaid departing guests.

It is quite a poetically appropriate word to replace “tea” when you discover that Afternoon Tea was invented for just this purpose – to fill the increasing gap between lunch and dinner in the early nineteenth century. I though it was very serendipitous synchronicity when I then discovered a little book published in 1860 called Breakfast, Dinner and Tea, viewed Classically, Poetically, and Practically. I was even more delighted to find that this was an American book, as until then I was labouring under the clear misunderstanding that “tea” was a purely English phenomenon. We are not so different after all

The author explains the American concept:

“In our Northern States, it is a very general custom both in town and country, to invite company to tea; - this meal being preferred to dinner as involving less effort, fatigue, and formality. The table is on these occasions more or less bountifully spread, according to the means and tastes of the hosts; conversation flows unrestrained by formality; a general cheerfulness seems to emanate from the steaming cups of tea, and the company generally separate at an early hour, with increased kindliness and neighborly feeling. In the rural districts, this meal partakes of the nature of a supper, both on ordinary and extraordinary occasions. When these latter occur, the greatest profusion abounds ; plenty with them is the soul of hospitality, and it is desired that every guest shall taste of every dish.”

Naturally, the book contains some recipes, and true to the practical-poetic nature of the meal, a number of them are named for their makers. “Kate” must have been a fine home cook, she gives us two recipes.

Kate's Sponge Cake.
Take six eggs, with their weight in sugar, and the weight of four of them in flour. Beat the whites to a froth ; stir the yelks with the sugar, and then putting them together, stir the whole ten minutes, gradually adding the flour.
Flavor with vanilla, lemon, or nutmeg. Bake it in a quick oven, and do not move it while baking.

Kate's Cookies.
Two cups of sugar, half a cup of butter, and one and a half cup of sweet milk, one teaspoonful of cream of tartar, half a teaspoonful of soda and two eggs. If you prefer to use sour milk omit the cream of tartar. Mix in sufficient flour to stiffen. Bake in a quick oven.

Monday’s Story …

More Food Word Fun.

Quotation for the Day …

Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast.
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And while the bubbling and loud hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer, but not inebriate, wait on each.
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.


T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

A very interesting history. I have always heard the story of a royal who invented afternoon tea (if I may call it that) to ease her hunger pains. I wonder why the tradition evolved in America? Certainly, in a farming culture, it was the right time of day for some norishment.

The Old Foodie said...

Hello t.w
Yes, Anna Russell, the Duchess of Bedford and friend of Queen Victoria is credited with introducing the custom of a mid-afternoon snack. The dinner hour has advanced progressively over the centuries, so "tea" kept one going between light lunch and late dinner.

Alex said...

You haven't mentioned the on-going confusion that can arise between the use of tea and dinner. Living in the north of England there seems to be no such meal as lunch, just dinner and tea! This causes no end of muddle for those of us used to lunch, dinner, afternoon tea and just a plain cup of tea!

I agree with you wholeheartedly when you argue that the English language is so rich why use one word for multiple (and potentially confusing) meanings!

The Old Foodie said...

Hello Alex
I am a Yorkshire Lass (or at least I am by birth) so I grew up with "dinner and tea". I haven't tackled the topic because it is too complicated as you say. I have found some more old words for meals - so I'll post these soon. Thanks for reading.