High tea is more substantial in all matters of food and drink than afternoon tea. It could include a whiskey and soda tray. Along with the dainty foods traditional to afternoon tea, there are soft-boiled eggs, sausages, sardines on toast, kippers, chicken livers and such. While some unscrupulous restaurants try to make afternoon tea sound more 'high society' by calling it high tea, the word 'high' is actually related to 'It's high time we had something to eat.' As social events go, high tea is lower on the scale than afternoon tea, because the chances of being fed dinner are small on a day you are given high tea.This NYTimes piece expands on that.
Our menus advertised cream tea, with scones, or English tea, with crumpets. Farther down was what we had come for, the real deal: tea with finger sandwiches, scones and something called the selection of cakes, which sounded like a ceremony I very much wanted to attend. But on the menu it was called afternoon tea, which I didn’t like, because it sounded like something just anybody could have, whereas high tea suggests it’s available only to people whose families remained loyal to the king in some long-ago war.Mmmm...meat tea.
The reason it wasn’t called high tea on the menu, I later learned, was because it’s not called that. High tea was what workers would eat late in the day, not at elegant lower tables but at a literally higher table, hence the name. The food was heavier — less a delicate snack and more something you scarf down over the sink. Another name for high tea — and you know no one was trying to impress anyone if these two words were allowed to touch — is “meat tea.” Like lots of traditions, it had scuttled sideways across time rather than been handed down directly, and I was doing it wrong. Not even my fantasy, it turned out, was real.
Edited to include the actual quote from Miss Manners.