What better image is there of the South than a few friends gathered on a wrap-around porch in rocking chairs with a pitcher of iced tea? It's summertime, of course. Everyone is barefoot and in sleeveless dresses, or shorts and tank tops. In the distance is the hum of Mr. Robinson's lawn mower and a few catbirds cry out in the nearby magnolia tree.
Sweet tea! Even as a child growing up, I enjoyed sweet tea in Japan. Only we called it iced tea, and my Virginian mama made pitchers of it every summer. From an early age I learned that if you want the sugar to dissolve, you have to add it while the brew is still hot and stir like crazy.
"Sweet tea," says my Durham, North Carolina-born and bred friend, Hilarie. "Why do we need to add the sweet? If it's iced tea, it's supposed to be sweet."
Now don't get Hilarie started on this topic. I did the other night and well, this girl has her opinions. For her, it's them Yankees who decided to make it sugarless and now we have to distinguish between sweet and non. Even in the South! Certainly, in these parts, the home of tea, we shouldn't have to ask, "Do you want tea? Do you want it sweet or not sweet?" The assumption should be that if it's tea you want to drink, well, it's sweet!
Where did iced tea get its roots in the United States?
In the 1900s it was known as a luxury because tea was not readily available nor were ice and sugar, so drinking it was a sign of wealth. The first mention of a recipe for it was found in a 1879 cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree. The recipe called for green tea, because during that era, that's what Americans drank. After World War II, green was replaced with black. The reason? While America was at war with Japan, the shipment of green tea stopped. America was allies with Great Britain and was able to import black tea since there was plenty of it in British-controlled India. Iced tea was then made with black tea.
And in the South, if you wanted tea, it meant you desired a nice glass of tea, poured over ice cubes. No need to call it sweet, folks knew what you meant.
Now we have to decide not only if we want it sweet or not, but if we want it with a squirt of peach or mango or raspberry.
My, things have changed!
According to my friend Margaret Leigh's relations, tea should be sweetened so well that it can give you cavities by just looking at the mason jar it comes in. I liked that image so much that I used it in my first novel, Rain Song, which takes place in Mount Olive, North Carolina.
So here's to tea, one of the South's finest inventions.
"Ice 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." ~ Housekeeping in Old Virginia