In praise of (non-political) tea parties

Tea partiers Tea partiers - of both varieties

America's Tea Party candidates could make big gains in Tuesday's mid-term elections, but in the UK tea parties retain a more innocent aura - less Gettysburg-inspired rhetoric, more Battenburg-inspired cake... please.

You have to feel sorry for all those young children whose ears will doubtless prick up on overhearing the endless analysis about this year's US mid-term elections, only for bafflement and boredom to ensue.

The Tea Party - a movement of conservative activists - is on the rise in the US.

But to politically innocent three-year-olds the world over, who enjoy hosting social gatherings attended by inert cuddly toys under just this banner, quite why tea parties are leading to gatherings at which impassioned speakers address banner-wielding crowds of angry people, must be perplexing in the least.

Where are the tuna paste sandwiches and Victoria sponge cakes?

While many column inches have been devoted to the fortunes of the American political movement, perhaps this is a suitable moment to stop and appreciate the finer aspects of what your average Brit would understand by the term "tea party".

Start Quote

Susannah Blake

Everybody loves that it's terribly decadent because it's a non-essential meal.”

End Quote Susannah Blake

Susannah Blake thinks so. The author of Afternoon Tea Parties, and its precursor, simply titled Afternoon Tea, Ms Blake believes the custom of hosting a tea party, whether for children or grown-ups, should be celebrated.

"It's a very easy way of entertaining. It's mid-afternoon, so it's child-friendly and it can be as expensive, or as cheap, as you want it to be, while not being a dinner party," says Ms Blake.

"Everybody loves that it's terribly decadent because it's a non-essential meal."

While the conventions around afternoon tea parties may be more relaxed than a more formal, evening bash, there are nevertheless some basic rules, says Ms Blake, who describes herself as a "passionate traveller, explorer and diner".

It can never be just a pot of tea and a "dip into a cake tin". Afternoon tea is as much about savoury offerings - typically sandwiches - as it is about delivering a sugar hit at 4pm.

Upper crust

While the idea of breaking mid-afternoon for a sedate, superfluous meal, might seem at odds with the demands of this time-pressed, efficiency-conscious era, it made perfect sense in the 1830s when the tradition began.

The perfect children's tea party

Children love to have pretend teas parties with their toys as well as with their friends. You can turn their tea party into a reality by letting them help make food they can eat. Even very young children will enjoy making food themselves, whether it is cutting sandwiches into shapes with cookie cutters or threading fruit onto straws. The perfect tea party is a combination of sweet and savoury goodies and getting them involved in making the food definitely adds an extra element of fun

Anna, Duchess of Bedford, is the woman commonly credited with inventing afternoon tea - establishing it as an occasion for upper-class women to trade gossip while filling up between a light lunch and a late dinner, says Andrea Tanner, archivist at London store Fortnum & Mason, which has long hosted afternoon teas.

Those with an eye for historical dates may wonder why the invention of tea parties post-dated the Boston Tea Party - from which America's current right-wing movement draws its inspiration - by about 50 years. The anomaly might be explained by historian Alfred Young, who said the term "Boston Tea Party" did not appear in print until 1834 - before that it was known simply as the "destruction of the tea".

"In the Victorian era, having an economically useless wife was a sign of some prestige," says Ms Tanner, noting how the occasion took hold and a tradition was born.

By the early 20th Century the event had begun to trickle down through the social strata. Afternoon tea became a feature of expensive hotels and smart department stores, and tea houses such as ABC Tea Shops and Lyons Corner Houses.

Revolutionary talk

While it may be hard to detect parallels between tea party as 21st Century political force and tea party as 20th Century talking shop, Ms Tanner, who helped research a new book, Tea at Fortnum & Mason, notes that discussion at the latter was not always frivolous.

Chimps' tea party Chimps' tea parties - where the fun really begins

"Women didn't have anywhere but their homes to congregate and you do find in certain societies that afternoon tea became a venue for often radical discussion. It sounds innocuous but I bet that women who joined Emmeline Pankhurst's Suffragette Movement, or the Fabians, would have been recruited at afternoon tea parties.

"Occasionally you would have lectures or talks, missionaries would report back on what they had been up to while abroad."

Yet for all their decorum and manner, and claims that afternoon tea is enjoying a resurgence of interest, there is an underlying sense of the absurd about the tea party which perhaps hints at the childish enjoyment to be had from scoffing sandwiches, cakes and scones.

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures, sees the protagonist storming off, complaining: "It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!"

And who could think of the tradition without summoning thoughts of a chimps' tea party - which used to be one of the highlights of the calendar for visitors to London Zoo?

And whether it's tea parties of the political or gastronomic persuasion that interests you - both sides will probably appreciate, according to Susannah Blake, how important afternoon tea is in helping instil good behaviour and manners in the next generation of voters.

Below is a selection of your comments

The loss of formal Tea Rooms such as Lyons, is to the detriment of modern London. In a time of overpriced restaurants or indifferent self service greasy spoon type affairs, a bit of etiquette in the shape of a formally dressed waitress, a table cloth, some decent china, a comfortable chair and no music, game machines, or other distractions would not fail to do well in today's drab and depressing food culture.

J Nelhams, London, UK

For my friends and I, tea is a central part of our lives. Thus we have a tea party every evening at ten o'clock, in order to sort through the events of the day and to enjoy a good cuppa. So let's not get away with thinking that only young children and posh mothers like having tea! 17-8 year olds like tea parties too.

Gala Pouzanov, Horsham, West Sussex

Just to add to the mix, friends and I held the highest Tea Party-complete with dormouse in tea pot and mad hatter- at 5,895m at the summit of Kilimanjaro. We were raising money for Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, who manage the National Dormice Monitoring Programme.

Jim Jones, London, UK

I had a Champagne tea party to celebrate my 18th Birthday a few years ago with family and friends. We went all out, with boiled quails' eggs, Rose and Pistachio macaroons, scones and, or course, tea! It was a complete success; incredibly civilised, lovely company, and not too late an evening for those with children! The perfect Sunday afternoon/evening.

Bilde, London

What a bunch of ridiculous nonsense! The 'revival' of the tea party... Just another way of glamourising the idea of twee, quintessential 'Britishness', and pushing it back into mainstream popular culture. I can imagine a nightmare of garish gingham table-cloths, pastel-iced cupcakes and a sickeningly sweet matching tea-set. I prefer my tea in a bag, in my favourite mug and on the go, with none of the pretentiousness, thank you very much! That's British!

Matthew, Manchester

Isn't it about time the Chimpanzee's Tea Party came back to the zoo? It was the main reason for going. I always try and go to the zoo whichever country I am visiting and I haven't seen one for years. Don't chimps like tea and cake anymore?

Steve Roach, Sydney, Australia

As a pre-war child when I got home form school we would have tea (sandwiches and cake with a drink which was not necessarily tea but could be a drink of milk or water depending on your age). We then played for an hour before having a bath, saying our prayers and going to bed. My mother was horrified when I refused to have a drink of tea at tea-time even when I was 50 years old. I don't and never have liked drinking tea.

Kath Nicol, Birmingham. England

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