Sweet Tea: House Wine of the South
A staple in fridges around the South, iced tea is just the beverage for the long, hot summer ahead! Depending upon your geographic location, it may be necessary to declare your choice—sweet or unsweetened. However, if you reside within the confines of the Mason-Dixon, there is only one way to drink your tea and that is sweet with a capital "S".
Deemed the "house wine of the South" in the movie Steel Magnolias, what is it about sweet tea that makes it uniquely Southern? Were we born this way—with an extra large sweet tooth? After all, the South is the birthplace of some pretty sweet beverages like Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, and Cheerwine. And, we certainly have a particular fondness for desserts. Maybe it's because it's so hot down here we need the sugar to perk us up when we're wilting in the heat. Whatever the reason, sugar is a part of our Southern culture and lives.
For me, I associate sweet tea with fond memories centered around family gatherings. To this day, I can still taste the ice-cold tea my Aunt Kate would serve at her lovely home in New Brockton, Alabama. She always used her tall, heavy glasses (etched with an "S" for Sawyer) and filled them with ice cubes from the tray. No electric ice-maker in those days.
I can also still taste the tea my grandmother Mary Alice (affectionately named Shug) served in her Fostoria stemware for special family gatherings like Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Something about sitting at the "grown-up" table drinking from the fancy glass, using the fine china and silver, made it taste even better. Now, with many family members gone, I yearn to sit at that table again and savor the tea and the company.
Perhaps the best tea of all was the tea we had each year at our Jones family reunion, also held at Shug's home in Elba, Alabama. Several of the Jones siblings (10 total!) would bring tea and then pour it into a large galvanized tub filled with ice. Uncle Louie would assume his honorary position, ladle in hand, and dispense tea in large Styrofoam cups to us kids. Nothing quenched our thirst quite like that super cold, super sweet tea. I have often wondered if the others can still taste that special tea blend that was filled with family, love, and history. When I close my eyes, I can.
I am a devoted tea drinker. Don't give me a cup of coffee or chai tea latte to kick start my day, but pour me a glass of ice-cold tea. And while no tea can match the tea of my memories I will say that in a pinch, the sweet tea from good old Southern franchises like Chick-Fil-A and Zaxby's can do it justice on most days.
Now as to whether you take your sweet tea with lemon or not, that's another post for another time…
Below is our go-to sweet tea recipe at The Southern Coterie. If you're feeling fancy, check out these flavored sweet teas and fun recipes using sweet tea from Southern Living.
The Southern C Sweet Tea
- 1 gallon (16 cups) water
- 4 family size tea bags (Luzianne or Lipton)
- 1 1/2 to 2 cups sugar (to desired taste)
In a large pot, bring the water to boil over high heat. Turn off the burner and add tea bags. Cover and steep for 6 minutes exactly. Set your timer.
Pour sugar into a gallon-sized pitcher and when the tea is done steeping, pour over the sugar and stir until dissolved.
Serve immediately into a glass full of ice. Store in the fridge – assuming there is any left!
Whitney Long is a Southern Living contributing editor and co-founder of The Southern Coterie - The Social Network of the South. The Southern Coterie is hosting The Southern C Summit Series August 1st in Athens, GA.