What are “tea breads” anyway?

Tea breads are a fancier name for quick breads. Banana bread, lemon bread, zucchini bread and pumpkin bread are the most common tea breads in the States, but there are countless others, from apple to chocolate to pineapple to strawberry. Tea breads are often confused with pound cakes, but in fact they’re quite a bit leaner (usually), having both less fat and fewer eggs in the mix.

How long have tea breads been around? Oh about a hundred years, roughly. Several of the classics date to the home baking explosion which occurred in the 1880’s as post-Civil War industry got on to the more important business of mass-producing baking pans and implements for American consumers.

Still it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 20th Century that cookbook authors began referring to these sweet loaves as “tea breads.” Except among the hopelessly anglophilic, the occasion of tea (not the meal, the afternoon snacking ritual) has never been a part of American culture. Tea, while widely enjoyed in the States, hasn’t been a big thing on our side of the pond since, oh, what was that thing…I’ll remember it eventually.

Americans are far more likely to refer to their morning or afternoon drinking/snacking binges as “coffee breaks”, which goes to show where our hot beverage priorities lie. Even so, the occasion of a formal tea party can generate a lot of excitement for certain members of American society (many of them little girls under the age of ten, two of which live in my house). American formal teas are rarities and are mostly for women…which means that in addition to tea you see an awful lot of the sweet stuff. Tea breads are regular features of the spread.

The vast majority of the time, however, tea breads are simple snack breads. That’s how most Americans enjoy them, or as a light, sweet finish to a meal.

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