Tea Is Dinner? Baffled by British Speak

My family and I have recently moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Bradford-on-Avon, England, for a year. Our mission: try out life at a slower pace. In my new series, Brooklyn to England, I’ll write about the weekly adventures of living in the English countryside with my British husband, our three-year-old daughter, and my baby-bump (I’m due in September!). Come with me as I go from strollers to prams, diapers to nappies, and whatever else it takes to raise a family abroad.


Dinner is not dinner in England. Well, it depends on where you are. In Bradford-on-Avon, sometimes dinner is dinner, but sometimes dinner is lunch. And sometimes tea is dinner. And sometimes, after dinner, there’s supper. And instead of dessert there’s pudding. The only constant, really, is that breakfast is still breakfast. Except there’s no brunch, at least, not in the high caliber “brunch culture” way I’ve come to expect in Brooklyn.

Basically, I’m starting to figure out that it all comes down to time. Here’s what I’ve deciphered about British speak.

Dinner as lunch: At her nursery school, Trixie’s teachers will often tell me whether or not she’s eaten her dinner. The first time I was confused — Dinner? It’s barely 3 p.m. — but around here, dinner is just another term for “middle of the day meal.”

Tea as dinner: Trixie really hates this one. Knowing that “tea” is a grown-up drink and tea parties are something for playtime, she simply cannot accept it when grandma calls out, “Tea time!” when we pop ’round for an evening meal. It’s a tough one for me to grasp, too, but I’ve figured out that tea is the meal served at around 6 p.m., and is generally aimed at kids (I think).

Supper as dinner: This one’s tricky, but if you go by the 6 p.m. “tea” standard, sometimes there can be a light, post-dinner snack — cheese and crackers, fruit — around 8 or 9 at night. For instance, having had my tea at 6 with Trixie, I am now supp’ing on blueberries and a biscuit (that’s cookie to you).

Pudding as dessert: Where I come from, pudding can be a dessert, but dessert isn’t always pudding. But if you can attempt to just dyslex-ify your brain for a minute, that’s how they roll in England. Who’s right? I don’t know, but when in Rome. . .

It’s a lot to digest, so to speak, but I’m getting the hang of all the new foods and mealtime nuances. Thanks to fish and chips, everyone knows chips are French fries, but did you know that English muffins are not even English? American muffins are considered cake here, and the only thing that even comes close an ‘English muffin’ is a crumpet. And then there’s bubbles and squeak (cut-up and fried leftover veggies), ploughman’s lunch (cheese and bread pub grub, served with chutney and salad), and bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes — Trixie’s favorite).

Maybe because she’s young and uninhibited, Trixie is picking it all up with ease and pride (“I say rubbish bin now!”). Words like yoh-gurt, tomahto, and wah-tah roll off her tongue, while I continue to blush when I try to pronounce them in public. But it’s fun, too. Finding out that courgette means zucchini, mange tout are snap peas, and a dripping buttie is a sandwich made from bacon grease — uh, yum?

Learning a language I thought I already knew can be confusing, but I’m okay with that. I’ve gotten used to hanging back at the grocery store, waiting for some old guy to inquire after the bicarbonate of soda, so I don’t have to embarrass myself asking where to find baking soda. Even though I can’t find black beans or ricotta or a decent bagel, I’m learning to live without, and pick up some new favorites along the way.

Photo: Getty