DEAR MISS MANNERS: A dear relative has invited me to high tea at their home. I have been before. Great effort is put into the event with homemade scones, tea sandwiches, desserts and several kinds of teas. All served on lovely porcelain from around the world.
The issue is, I don’t care for the type of food served, even though it is authentic “high tea” fare. I am pretty much a vegan; I can’t stand the thought of eating butter, egg salad and several desserts.
Everyone else loves the event. How can I decline without hurting the host’s feelings? It is a very long drive from my town to theirs, to add to it. I would appreciate any thoughtful words that could help.
GENTLE READER: There are three points that Miss Manners would like to make, two of which actually pertain to your predicament.
First, one can always decline an invitation politely. Gratitude for the invitation and regret at not being able to accept are all that need be expressed. Excuses are not only unnecessary, but can be offensive if they are trivial, and dangerous if they are untrue. But in this case, distance does seem a legitimate consideration, so you could mention how sorry you are not to be able to make the trip.
Second, it is not necessary to eat the food served at a tea. It isn’t even easy to do so, as those of us know who consider cucumber sandwiches to be a culinary triumph. The teacup’s saucer isn’t big enough to use as a plate, and holding a teacup in one hand and a small plate in the other makes it perilous to try to transfer the delicacy to the mouth.
So Miss Manners assures you that you need only drink a lot of tea, and it will not be conspicuous if you skip the food.
She asks your indulgence for the third point. That is that the event you are describing is not “high tea”; it is “afternoon tea” or just “tea.” “High tea,” also known as “nursery tea,” is an informal supper taken in place of dinner. “Authentic high tea fare” is potted meat and other things you wouldn’t eat, either.
The misnomer, which is common in America, probably arises from commercial establishments wanting to make their offerings seem grander, and mistakenly believing that the “high” has something to do with high society.