History of Cambric Tea
Cambric Tea was a common drink in America during the 19th century, primarily for children. Cambric tea gave children just a taste of tea and made them feel like they were getting tea like the grown-ups.
As Laura described it, cambric tea was made with milk, hot water, and brewed tea. Most traditional recipes I found also included sugar, but neither Laura’s books nor Barbara Walker’s Little House Cookbook included it. I prefer it without, but you may like it. Adding sugar brings it closer to a tea based version of hot chocolate, only without the chocolate.
My version is based on the fact that most of the year both sugar and milk would be valuable commodities to be used sparingly. Milk was a seasonal food based on the cow having a calf and giving milk for it. After the Ingalls family left Wisconsin and its sources of maple sugar, sugar was no longer something that they could easily find or make. (Sugar CAN be created in the prairie/plains area by growing things like sugar beets or sorghum and processing them, but there is no indication that the Ingalls family did.) That meant they had to buy it. So I’m assuming both ingredients would be used as little as possible. My directions are without sugar and with limited milk. The idea is that you would be stretching milk and not putting in too much tea because back then people didn’t think the children should be drinking much tea and children not raised on tea don’t like a strong tea taste anyway. So I changed the proportions to reflect that.
The historic recipes I found were also mostly a list of directions. There is a recipe for cambric tea in the Little House Cookbook, but this is my own from having experimented it making it. You could make it by the pot, but there are advantages to making it by the cup. It doesn’t stand well and it’s so pretty to make it by the cup so each person can see the reactions as the ingredients mix. It makes a lovely pattern as you do it by the cup that you wouldn’t see in a pot unless you have a clear glass teapot.
Brew fresh tea. I think plain tea is the most like the Ingalls would have had rather than a complicated blend. Brew the tea until it is dark. If you’re making a couple of cups, a cup of dark brewed tea will be enough. If you’re making a lot of cambric tea, expect to give seconds, or plan on giving straight tea as an option, go ahead and brew a whole pot.
You’ll also want a pot of hot water.
For each individual cup, fill the cup roughly ¾ full of hot water. You’ll want to leave a space between the top of the drink and the lip of the cup so take that into account.
Pour the milk into the hot water and watch it swirl until it mixes together. Add 1 Tbsp full of the brewed tea, stir, and serve hot.
My version is different than Barbara Walker’s . In her version the water and milk was equally divided and she made a tea concentrate to use instead of standard brewed tea. This is a fun and easy Little House recipe to try. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Sarah Sue’s Cambric Tea
For 6 servings You’ll Need:
- Hot water, at least 3 cups
- Milk, approximately 1 ½ cups
- Strong brewed black tea, 6 tablespoons
Step 1: Heat up water to the temperature you want the tea.
Step 2: Fill each cup half full of hot water.
Step 3: Pour in a quarter cup of milk in each cup. Be sure to have whoever the cup is for come and look as you pour in the milk it swirls beautifully and is worth seeing in.
Step 4: Pour in a Tablespoon of the tea in each cup and stir.
Drink it up while it’s hot! Unless they have been raised drinking tea, young kids are hesitant to drink straight tea as I’ve found out at many kids tea parties. I think they may like this though.
You’re Not a Brick
While we’re on the subject of tea, you will often see sutler’s (people who sell historic “props” for living history) selling bricks of tea. While these are often very beautiful and they were a thing, they weren’t a thing in America where leaf tea was always the rule from colonial times through today. Learn more about the history of tea in The Social History of Tea (2015 updated ed.) by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson.
Sarah S. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many times at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. She is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic, and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. How can you help? Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, look at her photos, and find her on Facebook , Twitter , Google+, LinkedIn , SlideShare, and Academia.edu . Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and former director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.