In every respectable English dwelling, be it palace or cottage, tea is served between four and five o'clock every afternoon in the year. The crone in the almshouse takes hers direct from the hob in winter, and in summer hobbles with her black teapot, a tea-spoonful of the precious leaves in the bottom, to the common kitchen to have it filled. Her betters in name and in worldly gear assemble about the tea equipage in drawing room or library, or in the family "parlor."
For the wealthy there are tea-tables of divers patterns, some with leaves that draw out to accommodate cups and saucers when set in array. The conventional afternoon tea-table is lower than that intended to hold bric-a-brac and books. The chair occupied by the mistress of the house or one of her daughters is low and broad, that she may sit at her ease while making and dispensing the beverage. The central figure upon the tray is a teakettle of silver, copper, brass or lacquered Japanese ware, with a spirit lamp beneath. When the water boils the tea is "masked," i. e., a little is poured upon the dry leaves in the pot, a wadded "cozy" is fitted over the latter, and the tea is "drawn" for about two minutes before the rest of the water is added.
The cups are passed by a servant if none of the young people of the family or intimate friends are present to whom the graceful task can be delegated. The tone of the whole function is easy sociability.
This is especially marked in the English country house, where sportsmen, who have been out with the dogs and gamekeeper all day, are allowed to drift into the drawing-room, in splashed gaiters and knickerbockers, for a chat and a cup of hot tea before going off to dress for dinner.
As accompaniments to the tea we have a basket of light cakes or biscuits, thin bread and butter, now and then buttered scones or "tea cake." Anything more elaborate mars the simplicity of the custom, perverting it into an "occasion." It ceases to be afternoon tea, a rest station between the one o'clock luncheon and the seven or eight o'clock dinner. In some towns and cities - particularly in the lavish South - the effort to introduce this simplest of social functions has failed ignominiously, because - like dish-washing, toast-making and tea-making, speaking the truth and spelling correctly - the right way of doing it is too easy to learn. The "spread" of oysters, salads, cakes and creams, bouillon and bonbons, flummery and fruit, into which the imported custom degenerated, was as foreign to the true spirit of the original as the crush of elaborately dressed women and the sprinkle of uncomfortable men who attended the teas was to the cordial informality that should obtain with guests and entertainers.
It is a wholesome symptom in our feverish social system that the beneficent break in the diurnal rush and press furnished by afternoon tea-time is becoming more and more prevalent. In tens of thousands of homes, in city and in country, five o'clock brings together the scattered parts of the home circle in the living-room. Jaunty wicker stands, three and four-storied, for holding plates of fancy biscuits, thin bread and butter, cake and crisp strips of lightly buttered toast spread with anchovy paste, have crept into conservative drawing-rooms; teakettle, teapot and their appurtenances appear duly at the stroke of the hour, and visitors who happen to call at that hour are cordially made welcome to the grateful refreshment. "Tea" is always there, no matter who comes or goes, and it typifies what we need more than all else besides in a land where labor is the rule and relaxation the exception - home joys, home comfort, home rest!
Five o'clock tea has come to stay! Whether as a simple refreshment for busy women who long for a life-saving station in the afternoon rush, or as an informal - and inexpensive - fashion of entertaining one's friends, it seems to be as firm a fixture on this side of the Atlantic as on the other.
One of the chief charms of the afternoon tea is its adaptability. It may be as much or as little of a function as one chooses. I do not refer now to the cup of tea that the hostess pours for herself or the chance friend every afternoon in the week, but to the tea where guests are regularly invited. It may be madame's At Home day, which extends over a period of a few weeks, or runs through the whole winter, or it may be one of the more formal occasions, to which guests are invited in droves, and social debts thereby paid en bloc.
For the simpler function it is easy to lay down rules. Little is required for it. If it is to be a weekly affair for which cards are issued early in the season, it is foolish to plan an elaborate menu, and even worse than foolish, for it is in bad taste. The guest who goes to such a day, "at home," does not expect a "spread," and the hostess who offers too much makes life harder for the timid woman of small means who is not quite sure what is the correct thing, but is only positive that it must be expensive.
For the ordinary one-day-every-week-all-winter afternoon tea there are many houses where one has only bread and butter or fancy biscuits and a simple cake. I know one woman who prides herself upon the quality of the doughnuts she serves at her afternoon teas, and they are the only sweets she has beyond a little dish of bonbons. To be sure, there are simple sandwiches or thin bread and butter, but further than this she does not go except for some special occasion.
For such an Afternoon Tea the following menus are offered as suggestions: