Dear Straight Dope:
Could you please help settle a dispute? It is my opinion that proper tea etiquette requires that one pour the tea into the cup *before* adding the milk (something to do with causing fine bone china to crack). However, a colleague of mine always pours the milk first and insists that that is proper etiquette. Can you please confirm for me that this man is clearly a prole and his manner of tea drinking beneath contempt?
SDStaff Larasaurus replies:
Cormac dear, as I was leafing through my new revised edition of The Joy of Cooking I came across this passage:
“The old-fashioned dictate ‘milk in first,’ or ‘MIF’ — supposedly a sign of good breeding — was simply a way to prevent thin porcelain in typically cold English houses from cracking at the touch of hot tea” (page 32, “What to Put in Tea”).
I don’t know that Joy is the definitive word on English tea etiquette, but it does at least offer a rationale on why you should care which thing goes into the teacup first. However, there is a contrary view, and luckily for you it’s one that probably carries a lot more weight in the chi-chi circles to which we all aspire.
In Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Warner Books, 1982), Judith Martin indicates that the phrase “She’s rather milk-in-first, dear” refers to the fact that nannies and governesses seem to be prone to pouring the milk in before the tea, while all others do the opposite. In her description of serving tea, she says, “[A]sk your guest of honor how she takes it. Using the strainer, pour straight from the pot for strong tea, and dilute it from the kettle for weak. Then add sugar … and milk, according to her taste.”
So on the one hand you’ve got the humble, practical proles, who pour the milk in first because they don’t want to break the crockery. On the other hand you’ve got Miss Manners. You pick.
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