Sweet Tea

A Southern Classic


Fourth of July brings picnics and lake outings aplenty, and it means fried chicken, all the fixings, and gallons of iced tea, a southern tradition. Before we proceed with this exposition on tea let’s take care of a slightly irritating matter. I hear this great beverage referred to as “ice tea” and “iced tea.” Which is correct?

I prefer “iced tea.” After all it’s the ice clinking in the glass that chills tea, giving it the cool, refreshing taste we love so much on a summer day. “Ice tea” sounds like a drink relying on ice for its flavor, like grape Kool-Aid. The New Oxford American Dictionary gives “iced tea” as its preference and that’s good enough for me.

Southerners swear by their sweet iced tea. In the South, iced tea is not just a summertime drink; it’s served year round with most meals. Nothing, however, ruins a meal faster than ordering sweet tea only to receive unsweetened tea. There ought to be a law against that. Well, it turns out there almost was.

Back in 2003, Representative John Noel (D-Atlanta) and four co-sponsors introduced HB 819 making it a misdemeanor to serve unsweetened tea only in Georgia. Here’s some of the legislation’s legalese: “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 serves 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.”

The bill never went to vote and was called an April Fool’s joke by some but its heart was in the right place. It ought to be against the law sure enough. Unsweetened tea grates on the taste buds almost as much as that non-word “anyways” grates on the ears. I think you know what I mean, but if not let this scenario enlighten you.

Somewhere down South a northerner who looks much like Rodney Dangerfield has ordered lunch and some tea.

Northern visitor: “Hey, whadayamean! This tea is sweet. Bring me unsweetened tea!”

Polite southern girl: “Sir, we don’t serve unsweetened tea here.”

Northern visitor: “Already or what! You’re telling me you don’t serve black tea?”

Polite southern girl: “No sir we don’t.”

Northern visitor craning his neck, eyes bulging: “Anyways … bring me some pop.”

I suppose he likes his tea black. Some folks refer to tea served without sugar, like coffee, as black tea. If only they knew their tea history, they might change their preference. Sweet tea, you see, occupies a position of great esteem in our culture. In the early 1900s people sipping sweet tea were viewed as persons of wealth. Sugar had to be shipped from afar and ice, the most expensive ingredient, wasn’t so easy to come by. Back then you didn’t come by a glass of iced tea so cheaply.

Over a century later, I don’t care what it costs. I’ve loved iced tea since I first raised a glass of my mom’s tea to my lips. I find that most tea elsewhere doesn’t measure up to hers. Her tea is one of the things I love about this land I call Georgialina, a word that fits nicely on this page. It took South Carolina to grow it and it took Georgia to tell us how best to brew it. First there was a bit of duplicity. Read on …

The British colonists in South Carolina went to China to buy tea plants, and the Chinese fooled them, selling them camellias instead. The Brits persevered and eventually got their beloved tea plants. For that we owe them a tip of the hat.

Now a good many historians disagree. They maintain that the first tea plant arrived here in the late 1700s when French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux, imported it as well as sublime camellias, gardenias, and azaleas to suit the aesthetic tastes of Charleston planters. He planted tea near Charleston at Middleton Barony, now known as Middleton Place Gardens, and that plant in time would suit our taste buds.

South Carolina’s connection with tea is strong. It’s the first place in the United States where tea was grown and it’s the only state to produce tea commercially. Do you like American Classic Tea? If so, go see where it’s grown. Head down to the country’s only tea plantation 20 miles west of Charleston. On Wadmalaw Island you’ll find the Charleston Tea Plantation, home of American Classic Tea.

Wadmalaw (just saying that name is a pleasure) provides the perfect environment for propagating tea. With its sandy soils, sub-tropical climate, and average rainfall of 52 inches per year, Wadmalaw provides idyllic conditions for the Camellia Sinensis plant. This plant produces both black and green teas and over 320 varieties grow on the 127-acre grounds of the plantation, which bills itself as America’s Only Tea Garden. I’m planning to see this lovely tea plantation, tour its grounds, and check out its gift shop.

South Carolina gave us tea and a Georgia lady told us how to brew it. A tried-and-true recipe for making sweet iced tea came to us courtesy of the Home Economics editor for the Atlanta Journal back in 1928. In Southern Cooking, Henrietta Stanley Dull provided the recipe that remained standard in the South for decades. Here’s her recipe with a decree at the end. Note, too, how she distinguishes iced tea from hot tea and what to do when adding ice.

“TEA: Freshly brewed tea, after three to five minutes’ infusion, is essential if a good quality is desired. The water, as for coffee, should be freshly boiled and poured over the tea for this short time. The tea leaves may be removed when the desired strength is obtained. Tea, when it is to be iced, should be made much stronger, to allow for the ice used in chilling. A medium strength tea is usually liked. A good blend and grade of black tea is most popular for iced tea, while green and black are used for hot. To sweeten tea for an iced drink, less sugar is required if put in while tea is hot, but often too much is made and sweetened, so in the end there is more often a waste than saving. Iced tea should be served with or without lemon, with a sprig of mint, a strawberry, a cherry, a slice of orange or pineapple. This may be fresh or canned fruit. Milk is not used in iced tea.”

Besides being good, tea is good for you. All teas from the camellia tea plant abound in polyphenols, an antioxidant. These nutrients seek out cell-damaging free radicals and detoxify them. Read the tea leaves, it’s good for your future.

One more thing about iced tea. Consider it a beautiful glass of climate control. Add a slice of lemon or a green sprig of mint and the Southerner’s drink of choice brings loveliness and chill to a hot summer day. Just watching rivulets of condensation trickle down the glass drops the temperature ten degrees.

Seems our temperate days are about over. It’s hitting 102 here in two days. Should be a hot Fourth. Be smart. Be southern. Keep a pitcher of this southern classic chilled and ready all summer long. It’s a healthy southern tradition whether you drink it from a glass, a cup, or a Mason jar, and it’s especially good for you when those evil free radicals cause you to mindlessly repeat “anyways” when pausing to think.

3 thoughts on “Sweet Tea

  1. Even though I understand your reason to distenguish between “ice” and “iced”, if I order ice tea or iced tea in Wrightsville or Lincolnton I know what the waitress will bring. Tom your story also brings a whole new prospective on the “Boston Tea Party” as far as economic effects. I wonder how many bales of cotton a ship load of tea would cost?
    I enjoyed the post as always—- charlie

  2. N”ice” tea story there Thomas! Always enjoy your writings. By the way, I am a tea drinker – both hot and iced! Not much of a coffee drinker, so my mornings start with a freshly brewed and large mug of hot tea! However, I always include a large splash (maybe more) of orange juice. I call it a “poor man’s” Russia tea!

    For my iced tea, I prefer a 50/50 mix of lemonade (sometimes referenced as an “Arnold Palmer”), but cannot always get that when dining out!

    And as far as the correct or preferred way to identify the drink – ice tea or iced tea – I think both or correct. Indeed, iced tea is correct for written purposes. However for us Southerners, we verbalize it as ice’ tea. We do have that tendency to drop a letter or two as we speak, you know!

    All the best and see ya’ in Wadmalaw!

    Tom Shipman

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