Fall 2013 (Vol. 1, Online Issues) / Online Issues

High Tea, Low Tea

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High Tea, Low Tea

Article By Grace Jamieson, Photos By Ortal Isaac
The Homecoming Issue | New York, NY
With the barometer dropping too far below freezing this week, and finals on everybody’s mind, nothing could be more comforting than a hot mug of tea, the steam rising to your cheeks as you hug it closer to your face.  Grace Jamieson ventures downtown to see how high tea is returning to its historical precedents and, in one particular tearoom, embracing the humble coziness of a good ol’ cuppa. 
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 High tea has long been a misnomer, under the assumption that there is—well—something elevated about it.  High tea in America has come to signify the upper class meal of scones, clotted cream, preserves, finger sandwiches, petits fours, and rare-blend teas that features in many high-end hotels and classy museum dining rooms.

In contrast, the original high tea was a labor-class meal; a light evening repast that took place at the end of the workday.  The image of this amiable dining-room meal has been somewhat hijacked by America’s cultural craze over what is more properly known as afternoon tea: the mid-day tea of the old English leisure class.  At one time, afternoon tea was even referred to as low tea, as it was served on low coffee or salon tables, as apposed to the standard, high tables of the evening dinner.

History tells us that even before the Boston Tea Party, tea was the drink of the privileged elite.  Not only was tea itself expensive in the early 1800s, but the required equipment was too.  A full set of afternoon tea dishware—often made entirely of sliver—included the teapot, sugar bowl, milk pitcher, spoon holders, strainer, sugar tongs, cake baskets, and butter dishes.  Not to mention the porcelain saucers and cups, of course.  Taking afternoon tea in America became a sign you could afford such luxuries, as well as the time off of work to enjoy them.

In the later half of the 19th century, tea became the epitome of American socialite entertainment, as explained by Anne Seymour in her guide to etiquette: “Good tea, good sandwiches, and good company make an ideal social combination.” This form of tea has today developed into the formal hotel reception tea, with tri-layered racks of exquisitely fabricated cakes, sandwiches, and scones.  Yet the original high tea—the informal family gathering—is much more difficult to find in the nooks and crannies of New York City than its upscale equivalent.

And yet, a few independent tearooms are trying to revive the humble beginnings of the traditional high tea,.  One such location is Podunk, a tiny, independent tearoom located on a residential block in the East Village.  Branding itself as a hotspot for “American tea”, the décor and ambience are somewhat akin to what you might find in your grandmother’s midwestern farmhouse.  Wooden engravings of farm animals adorn the walls, along with vintage clocks, trellised shelves, and antique boards featuring sayings such as, “No Snivelling.”

Despite the slightly cliché ambience, the place has a feeling of home, with its mismatched chairs and various teapots, no two alike.  And what solidifies this homey atmosphere is the food, which combines aspects of both high tea and low tea.  With tea for one ranging from the traditional sandwiches, cakes, scones, jam, and cream, to the more creative — such as the Truck-Stop Tea, adding a sausage and egg tart and some bacon, or the Rustic Tea, with focaccia, stuffed dates, and chocolate chip cookies — there is something for all taste buds.  Most teas can be ordered individually or to share, with prices ranging from $15-30 per person – tea included.

You should beware, however, that each element of these teas is served in bites and nibbles; in miniature.  The scones are the size of Ping-Pong balls and the sandwiches about the size of a domino but not quite as thick.  Each meal is really set up to be a tasting plate.

Talking actual teas now, Podunk features a wide variety of cured leaves, including both the traditional blacks and more exotic herbal, green, and white teas.  A pot is $8 individually, or $7 each to share.  Luckily for this price, hot water refills are included.  The tearoom also features hot tea punches and homemade chai, and their “pot chocolate” – so named for its rich, fondue-like quality — comes with cookies and cream.  These specialties range from $15-19 and can only be ordered individually.

The atmosphere at Podunk is relaxed and convivial.  The service and counter is family run, and the proprietors are happy to answer any questions you may have regarding the menu.  A good location to catch up with an old friend or bond with a new one over a warm drink and a couple of nibbles, Podunk captures the beauty of tea without the stiff formality of afternoon tea.  Just remember to stop by a restroom and grab some cash before you make your way over—there are no toilets available and plastic is far too business-like for this homey, cash-only establishment.

Podunk is located on 231 E 5th St., Second floor. Open 11am-9pm daily.  For more information, please call (212) 677-7722.

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To learn more about the “Homecoming” online issue, click here.  To see the Hungry Wednesday articles, click here.  To see the other articles in the “Homecoming” online issue, click here.  And don’t forget to fill out our Hungry Wednesday survey here.

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