Afternoon tea is a very British concept, but has been increasing in popularity in America. Research done by Open Table found that bookings for afternoon tea have increased by 54% over the past two years. It was Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, who started the trend for afternoon tea in 1840. The household evening meal wasn’t served until 8pm, but she would become hungry by 4pm – what a dilemma for the Duchess. She developed a habit of asking for a tray of bread and butter, tea and cake to be brought to her room. This pause for tea became extremely fashionable in the upper class ladies’ social circles. They would dress up for the occasion and enjoy tea and dainty treats served in the drawing room – and so afternoon tea was born.
A good cup of tea is of course the main feature of an afternoon tea – it is served in a china cup and saucer, poured from a teapot. Popular varieties of tea used are Earl Grey (served without milk) or an Assam tea—grown in Assam, India—this is reported to be the Queen’s favorite. As an American alternative, you could try a Yaupon tea – this is made from America’s only caffeinated plant, a type of holly bush. Yaupon was drunk by the indigenous tribes of Florida and Georgia, but was also exported to other countries. In Britain it was known as “South Seas Tea.” Yaupon tea can be bought online, in independent grocery stores and at farmers markets. There is also an American Yaupon Association.
A good afternoon tea should have a savory element and a sweet element. Delicate sandwiches are normally served as part of the savory element. (The sandwich was invented by John Montegue, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, in 1762.) Traditional afternoon tea sandwiches include cucumber and the classic smoked salmon and cream cheese. As a twist you could try serving some American sandwiches in miniature, such as ham or turkey on Rye, or a tasty BLT. Another great option would be tiny po’boys with seasoned shrimp, some New England-style lobster rolls, or a Cuban sandwich cut into finger-sized portions.
Cakes for an afternoon tea should be extremely dainty – you wouldn’t want to overindulge and spoil your appetite for your dinner later. Rather than serving large slabs of cake at your afternoon tea, you could offer your guests some small cupcakes. Classic American options include red velvet with a buttercream frosting, the German chocolate cake (which is actually an American invention), and a cinnamon king cake, which comes from Louisiana. Alongside cupcakes you could also serve small portions of New York cheesecake, Banoffee Pie, and Key Lime pie.
Afternoon tea isn’t just a meal, it’s an institution and should be observed on a regular basis. Invite a few friends over, dress up in your fineries, and enjoy an American twist on one of life’s indulgent luxuries.