Taste of the South: Iced Tea

Iced tea and Southerners go hand in hand. Read more about this simple concoction of tea, sugar, and water, and learn how to make the perfect pitcher of sweet iced tea.
Lyda Jones Burnette

Recipe: Sweet Iced Tea

Known as the signature drink of the region, a tall glass of iced tea in the South goes with just about every event—church suppers, family meals, ladies luncheons, and it’s just perfect for porch sitting on a sizzling summer day. It‘s so easy to make and feeds a thirsty crowd. Beginning with tea bags and allowing for a bit of steep time are two important elements in getting the perfect pitcher of iced tea.

Iced Tea Recipes: North v. South
Two surefire ways to let people know you weren’t raised in the South: 1. Declare the tea to be “too sweet.” 2. Give the waitress a confused look when she asks if your tea should be “sweet or un.” (translation for Yankees reading this: “sweet or unsweetened tea?”)

True story. An Alabama teenager settled in at a restaurant in Vermont. When the waitress appeared, he asked for sweet iced tea. She promptly brought him a glass of ice, a cup of hot tea, and sugar. One sip of the concoction and he reacted, well, as most teenage boys do when they taste something unpalatable. (You get the picture.) While mopping the table, the mother explained the difference in Southern sweet tea and tea that you get, um, elsewhere. In other words, never order sweet tea unless you’re in a state where barbecue restaurants are plentiful and easily found. The teenager’s response? “Mama, take me home!” he wailed, echoing the sentiments of many misplaced Southerners.

Though some health-conscious Southerners have taken to drinking their iced tea without sugar, it’s wise to specify that to the waitress when eating out. If you ask for tea in most restaurants in the region, you’re likely to get it iced and sweet. Besides fussing with the Yankees when they claim the tea’s too sweet, Southerners still have battles to wage among themselves. Whose sweet tea is best? Milo’s Famous Sweet Tea from Birmingham? Or tea from Pal’s, a famous burger stand in East Tennessee? Every Southerner can argue that the best iced tea is found at their favorite local spot. Of course, you can always end the debate in a civil way with an unarguable, politically  correct answer to where the best iced tea is found: “My mama’s.”

History of Sweet Iced Tea
It’s easy to understand how sweet iced tea came about in the South. First, the summers always have been hot. Second, ice boxes and the rise of refrigeration made it easy to make the tea cold. Third, rationing of sugar during World War II encouraged creative and thrifty Southern cooks to add sugar to the tea while hot, so it took less sugar to make the tea sweet. The super- saturated elixir soon became a Southern staple and the undisputed drink with barbecue and fried chicken, and at fish fries, family reunions, and church suppers. That’s because Southern gatherings are usually big, and large quantities can be made quickly and inexpensively.

Perhaps it’s fitting that South Carolina was the first place in the United States where tea was grown and the only place where it was ever produced commercially. And, the oldest sweet tea recipe in print can be traced to a community cookbook published in 1879 titled Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree.

More...