Winnie the Pooh always “liked a little something at eleven o’clock in the morning.” In a good bit of fortune, the clock on the wall of The House at Pooh Corner had conveniently “stopped at five minutes to eleven some weeks ago.” The frozen timepiece was Pooh’s perpetual prompt to stop for elevenses, his favorite meal of the day, usually consisting of honey on bread with condensed milk.
“When late morning rolls around, and you’re feeling a bit out of sorts, don’t worry; you’re probably just a little eleven o’clockish,” says Pooh.
The English have worked hard to keep that “eleven o’clockish” feeling at bay for centuries by adding a light meal between breakfast and luncheon. In the 1660s, Samuel Pepys, one of the first Londoners to mention tea in his diary, often felt the need for mid-morning refreshment, though never calling it elevenses. Before he could afford tea, his second breakfast included something alcoholic at around 9 o’clock—as his working day started as early as 4 a.m. in the summer.
Although Jane Austen enjoyed tea in the late morning with family or visitors, she never used the term because she had been asleep in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral for 50 years by the time the colloquial term “elevenses” appeared in English.
This peculiar meal-between-meals phenomenon was recorded in 1823 as an “elevener.” As tea became more affordable to the working class, the term had evolved by 1849 when both “elevens” and “fourzes” were mentioned as work breaks in a Suffolk commentary on agricultural workers. As British tea growing flourished in India—and later in Ceylon [now Sri Lanka]—the now affordable luxury of hot tea was supplied by the gallon to farmworkers as a caffeinated motivation to work longer hours in the fields.
The term elevenses came about during the height of the Industrial Revolution and was in use by 1887 as tearooms blossomed in every city and village from Glasgow to Penzance. Wooden signs bearing the words Cream Tea were tucked into café windows. Throughout the 20th century, tourists paused their travels for a half-hour tea and scones break at mid-morning, a ritual that continues in many areas of the UK today.
There is no need to put on a fancy dress or fine hat for this simple fare. Forego breaking out your best silver or the family heirloom Royal Doulton with hand-painted periwinkles—unless you are taking tea with Hyacinth Bucket and the vicar on the BBC’s Keeping Up Appearances.
What is the proper menu for elevenses? Keep it simple and unpretentious—a pot of tea, a scone with cream and jam. You might include a finger sandwich or a light pastry, such as a slice of pound cake. Sometimes, a Scottish shortbread with a dab of lemon curd is all that is required. You certainly do not want to satiate your appetite before lunch.
For nearly four centuries, our British friends have been masters at creating meals centered around the tea ritual. Whether the occasion is afternoon tea, high tea, a tea dance, or elevenses, everything stops for tea in the land of Pooh Bear.
Read more about British and American tea traditions…