Tea is a meal to which I became accustomed in my teens. My mother, faced with a growing teenage boy and a romantically minded moping teenage girl, decided that at 3:30 or 4 every afternoon, we would convene in the family’s more casual living room for a cup of tea and a light snack.
The snacks varied widely — gingerbread and apple slices on a fall day, perhaps, or cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches and grapes on a hectic summer weekday. The food was simple and served in small portions, but the custom was the very definition of pleasant.
We got to sit, to calm ourselves from the tasks of the day, to gird ourselves against the tasks of the evening, to refresh our appetites, to refresh our spirits, and to read quietly or entertain one another with small conversation. It wasn’t fancy, but it was restful and delightful.
To this day, I still serve tea to myself, my loved ones, and the occasional unexpected guest. It usually falls closer to 5 p.m. these days as the dinner hour creeps into the 7 or 8 p.m. territory, and we working types need a snack to hold ourselves over.
Tea always includes a starch — a small sandwich, a fresh scone or biscuit, buttery crackers — as its centerpiece. There may be a protein such as cheese, almonds, or the occasional sliver of salami or smoked salmon. There is invariably fruit, prettily arranged in finger-friendly slices or in bite-sized chunks in glass bowls.
But the tradition is less about the food and more about the pause: The brief breath that signals a transition from work to home, from public life to private life, from day to evening, and from dry and technical conversation to something more friendly and infinitely more entertaining.