I was weaned on sweet tea. My Mama tells the story of how I, just a wee thing on a hot summer day in our hot car, asked, “Does you have any tea in your pocketbook?” She would make pitchers of the amber liquid to keep in our motel rooms when we traveled, because it was all that I would drink. Not water. Not soft drinks from the vending machine. Just tea. And it’s still my main beverage today. I drink it when I first wake up, with my meals, at bedtime, and whenever I’m thirsty. Oh, I flirt with an occasional rogue beverage which comes my way now and then. And I drink a cup of coffee after supper. Have an occasional glass of wine with a meal. Punch at parties. Brandy when I have a cold. But tea runs in my veins. If they measured your blood-tea level like they measure blood-alcohol, I’d be way over the limit.
When I moved to Texas from Alabama, I was shocked to find that tea was not served sweet in restaurants. If you wanted your tea sweet, they expected you to tear open little packets found on the table, pour, and stir. How barbaric! Oh, the occasional glass of sweet tea may be found at a few establishments, but the universal lack of sweet tea in the state is just one of the notable points to be made when discussing whether Texas is Southern or Western. (Perhaps a reflection on that another time.) When my Daddy visits he still assumes the tea will be sweet in restaurants, and I have to remind him, “You’re in Texas now. You have to sweeten your tea yourself.”
When I order tea or refer to it in any way, I don’t mean hot tea. I mean iced tea or sweet tea, the terms being interchangeable in the South. Here’s what’s in it: black tea, water, lemon, and sugar. And, of course, you may garnish it with mint to be fancy. Pure cane sugar is the presumed sweetener, but alas, I switched to generic Splenda after a bout with gestational diabetes while pregnant with my daughter. I’ve continued on with the sugar substitute for the calorie savings.
And as for lemon, well, why would anyone serve iced tea without lemon? As I’m writing this, I’m drinking a bottled sweet tea that I purchased in a vending machine (hey, I was thirsty). It contains sugar and black tea and natural flavor, which I was hoping would be lemon, but, alas, is not. In restaurants, Mama always orders her tea this way: “I want iced tea. With lemon. And bring me some extra lemon. Now listen, I get ornery if I don’t have plenty of lemon. I like a lot of lemon.” The waiter is invariably a male just on the border between teenager and young adulthood. He either responds with a nod of the head and large eyes and returns with a heaping bowl of lemon wedges for which he receives an appropriately appreciative tip, or he purses his lips and returns with two shriveled lemon wedges on a napkin served with a surly expression. Occasional the worst happens - he forgets to bring any lemon at all and then things have been known to turn ugly.
But nothing is uglier, or should I say rude, then having someone in your home and not offering them a glass of iced tea. The offering is synonymous with hospitality across the South. You can also judge someone’s character by their response to your offer. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a person who says, “No thank you. I’m not thirsty.” Or the person, who declines the tea and accepts water instead. But, if the person accepts the tea, well, I think that’s the mark of a true Southern lady or gentleman. Their quality of raising shows. Just saying. And as for me, well, if the person says, “I don’t drink iced tea,” then I send that one packing the first chance I get.
Perhaps a stroll through the history of tea will explain why I’m a disciple among the Southerners devoted to the beverage. (As for the question of “is it ‘ice’ or ‘iced’ tea?,” Southern Living magazine, the other Bible of the South, says “iced.” Amen.) So, I first visited Wikipedia (don’t we all) and read, “Sweet tea is a style of iced tea commonly consumed in the United States, especially the Southern United States. Sweet tea is made by adding sugar to bags of black tea brewing in hot water while the mixture is still hot. The tea is served ice-cold and plain but may also be flavored, traditionally with raspberry, lemon, or mint. An important part of the tradition of the South, it is often consumed daily as a staple drink.”
On a side note, I Wikipediaed (don’t you just love that word? – it’s like Googled) Wikipedia and read that one of the founders, Larry Sanger, was born in Washington State, raised in Alaska, and educated “up North.” But the other founder, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales is from Huntsville, Alabama. His father managed a grocery store (seller of tea), and Jimbo received his bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn University. He then entered the PhD finance program at the University of Alabama before leaving with a master's degree to enter a PhD finance program at a Northern university. He’s a Southern boy who would know a thing or two about iced tea.
I next visited the What's Cooking America website run by Linda Stradley. She states: Southerners swear by their traditional sweet ice tea and drink it by the gallons. In the South, iced tea is not just a summertime drink, it is served year round with most meals. When people order tea in a Southern restaurant, chances are they will get sweet iced tea. Outside of the southern states, iced tea is served unsweetened or “black,” and most people have never even heard of sweet tea.
Stradley’s site notes that the first tea plant arrived in the U.S. in the late 1700s when French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux (1746-1802) imported a number of attractive plants for Charleston planters. South Carolina was the first state to grow tea back in 1795 and the only state where tea has been produced commercially. English and American cookbooks contained recipes for cold tea as far back as the early 19th century. At that time, cold, green tea punches spiked with liquor were popular. The community cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree published in 1879 contains the oldest-known printed, sweet tea recipe:
"Iced Tea. - After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea. If wanted for supper, do this at breakfast. At dinner time, strain, without stirring, through a tea strainer into a pitcher. Let it stand till tea time and pour into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pitcher. Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency."
Stradley states that after 1900, black tea replaced green tea in most cookbook recipes as inexpensive exports arrived from India, Ceylon, South America, and Africa. By World War I, tall iced tea glasses, long-handled iced tea spoons, and lemon forks were produced in America. Prohibition boosted iced tea’s popularity as an alternative to alcohol. Fighting in World War II cut-off supplies of almost all green tea from reaching the United States, leaving British-controlled India, with its black tea, as our primary supplier of tea.
Yes, I know that iced tea has been and is consumed outside of the South. Stradley provides an 1884 recipe out of Boston for “Ice Tea or Russian Tea” that contains black tea, sugar, and lemon. At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair a concessionaire grossed over $2,000 selling iced tea and lemonade. But the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis truly popularized and commercialized iced tea. According to Pamela J. Vaccaro’s book Beyond The Ice Cream Cone - The Whole Scoop on Food at the 1904 World's Fair: “iced tea appeared on most restaurant menus at the Fair.” That summer was especially hot in St. Louis. And I think that is one reason why iced tea is so loved in the South.
Has there ever been anything more refreshing on a hot, humid day than a glass of iced tea? Especially in pre-air-conditioning days? I think, too, that Southerners love of tea is rooted in our culture and customs derived from our British Colonial roots. In fact, tea is so integral to our culture that on April 10, 1995, South Carolina's homegrown tea was adopted as the Official Hospitality Beverage by State Bill 3487, Act No. 31 of the 111th Session of the South Carolina General Assembly.
But besides tea’s place in hospitality, the beverage has health benefits. The leaves contain antioxidants in the form of flavonoids. There are compounds in black tea that promote heart health and fight cancer. And tea might make you a little smarter. According to Andrea N. Giancoli, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, "Both green and black tea contain theanine, an amino acid that can help to improve attention and enhance the ability to learn and to remember." Yes, my blood-tea content surely would be over the limit, if there was one. But why would there be? Tea is good for the body, the mind, the soul.
The benefits are not lost on Georgia State Representative John Noel. In 2003, Noel and four co-sponsors introduced House Bill 819, requiring all Georgia restaurants that serve tea to serve sweet tea. Noel admitted that the bill was an attempt to bring humor to the Legislature for April Fool’s Day, but he would not mind if it became law. The text of the bill proposed:
(a) As used in this Code section, the term 'sweet tea' means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.
(b) Any food service establishment which served iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.
(c) Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.
These five men are obviously committed to the welfare of their constituents as evidenced by this important legislation.
I shall conclude with my own
“Ode to Sweet Tea” (My apologies to Joyce Kilmer).
I think that I shall never drink
A beverage as refreshing as sweet tea.
May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton