A Cuppa’ Cultural Differences – Taking English Tea and Toast

I’ve just discovered that the way you drink tea in England reveals more about you than you ever imagined. With all eyes on the London Olympics this week, I coincidentally happen to be reading Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by social anthropologist Kate Fox.

It’s an entertaining investigation of scads of unspoken behavioral rules in English culture, including the functions of weather-speak, importance of fair play and “the drama of queuing.” Naturally, I went straight to the chapter on food rules and table manners. As a tea-drinker in our more egalitarian America society, I never thought of my tea taking habits as projecting traits that could be judged by those employing class-conscious radar. (The only judgments I am aware of here in the Bay Area are from inveterate coffee addicts). I was fascinated to read Fox’s accounts of the hidden rules for eating the most mundane meals in England, which illustrate that in a “highly class conscious culture” the way you stir your tea broadcasts your social standing.

For example, Fox reports that “taking sugar in your tea is regarded by many as an infallible lower-class indicator: even one spoonful is a bit suspect…more than one and you are lower middle at best; more than two and you are definitely working class.” Other emblems of lower-class tea drinking behavior include putting milk in the cup first and stirring noisily.

(I must admit I do add sugar to my morning English Breakfast tea. In elementary school, my best friend’s mother was English and often offered me a cup of tea with just milk–-which I turned down (politely, I hope) calling it in my mind, a cup of “mud tea”.)

In England, however, an appreciation of tea’s practically magical properties crosses all class lines. Fox explains: “A cup of tea can cure…almost all minor physical ailments and indispositions from a headache to a skinned knee. Tea is also an essential remedy for all social and psychological ills, from a bruised ego to the trauma of a divorce or bereavement.”

According to Fox, whenever English people feel at a loss for what to do in a socially awkward situation, it’s time to put the kettle on. Encountering a lull in the conversation, dealing with a bad accident where people are in shock, or having to discuss a taboo subject such as money, can all be eased by a spot of tea.

After handling the subject of tea, she moves on to toast and examines a uniquely English object, the toast caddy (which her now-American father joking calls a ‘toast cooler’). The point of the rack (which can be silver, stainless steel or ceramic) is to insure that toast stays dry and crisp, instead of the pile of soggy buttered bread that Americans have for breakfast. “The English would rather have their toast cool and dry than warm and damp,” Fox writes. “American toast lacks reserve and dignity: it is too sweaty and indiscrete and emotional.”

To put the final cultural capper on the subject of toast, she turns her attention to jam. “The darker the colour, the bigger the lumps of fruit, the more socially elevated the jam.”

(I was thrilled to read that the higher classes prefer Dundee bitter orange marmalade. It’s been my favorite since early sleepovers at my Grandmother’s house. Her youth in the commonwealth nation of Canada probably introduced my grandmother to chunky, Dundee bitter orange marmalade and she passed that love on to me with each breakfast we shared.)

Even the way we eat our toast is telling. Instead of spreading an entire piece of toast with jam or butter, Fox tells us that the English “correct (posh) way” is to break off a small piece and spread only that much with jam and then eat it. “It is considered vulgar to spread butter or whatever across the whole slice of bread or half-roll, as though you were making a batch of sandwiches for a picnic, and then bite into it.” The point of this “small and slow is beautiful” principle when applied to food is to avoid appearing greedy and not overly interested in food. “Over-eagerness about food is disgusting and even somehow faintly obscene. Eating small mouthfuls, with plenty of pauses in between them, shows a more restrained unemotional English approach to food.”

Fox acknowledges that, ”In most other cultures, people who care about food and enjoy cooking and talking about it, are not singled out, either sneeringly or admiringly as ‘foodies.’ …Most of us are proud to claim that we ‘eat to live rather than living to eat’ – unlike some of our neighbours, the French in particular, whose excellent cooking we enjoy and admire, but whose shameless devotion to food we rather despise, not realizing that the two might perhaps be connected.”

I imagine if they included Olympic events related to food, France would have a good shot at a medal while England would probably not even qualify, but if they added a competition in polite rule making, England could sweep the gold.

About Anna Mindess

A sign language interpreter by day; a food writer by night. Endlessly fascinated by looking at the world through the eyes of different cultures -- and tasting its variety. Anna lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and daughter. Author of READING BETWEEN THE SIGNS and now a freelance writer for KQED's Bay Area Bites, Oakland Magazine and other publications.
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8 Responses to A Cuppa’ Cultural Differences – Taking English Tea and Toast

  1. Pingback: Drink up the Culture at a Traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony | East Bay Ethnic Eats

  2. kiisu23 says:

    I’m English and I love warm, soggy toast. Infact calling it toast may be incorrect as I never give it time to actually become toast, so I suppose it is warm bread really.

    But the tea part is true, I have two sugars and I am defiantly not from the upper class and I have had a few remarks such as,
    ” sugar in tea?! Why?!” usually from people with much nicer houses 🙂

  3. notesontea says:

    Lovely tea sets! Could you tell us more about them?

    I enjoy my black tea with milk, no sugar, unless it’s chai masala. I tend to prefer chunky jams but that’s because I love fruit.

    • Anna Mindess says:

      Thanks so much for noticing. I am grateful to have inherited my grandmother’s large collection of English bone china teacups and it was fun to be able to feature some in a post. I also collect tea pots and accessories. Was wonderful to share these with my daughter when she was young. And she still appreciates them now when she comes home from college.

  4. I stumbled on this blog trying to find out if Americans like marmalade. I just had to comment to say I’m rather impressed with the tea on display – Yorkshire Gold! Proper tea!

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