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Keep up with Garden and Gun. By Allison Glock. Perhaps this is because she was from West Virginia, a place where people drink sweet tea with some ambivalence. She still made sweet tea, of course, being a Southern woman of whom having iced tea on hand is expected. For most of my youth, any sweet tea I consumed came from fast-food restaurants, usually those specializing in fried chicken or ribs.
Soda was not allowed in our bodies or even our house—except for Tab, for Mother, until they figured out the chemical that made Tab sweet also made rats insane.
Then, all soft drinks were verboten. Sweet tea, however, was fine, even though the health benefits of drinking sweet tea are akin to those of drinking icing. A glass of sweet tea is around 22 percent sugar, twice that of a can of cola. When you drink sweet tea, your body starts to pump out insulin like water from a fire hose.
Then, you have the caffeine. Which stimulates your adrenaline. Which confuses your metabolism. And keeps you from feeling sated, as one normally would after swallowing that much sweetness. Only a select few can eat seven pieces of cheesecake at a sitting, for example.
To say Southerners drink sweet tea like water is both true and not. True because the beverage is served at every meal, and all times and venues in between—at church and at strip clubs, at preschool and in nursing homes.
Not true because unlike water or wine or even Coca-Cola, sweet tea means something. It is a tell, a tradition. Like Guinness in Ireland. Or ouzo in Greece. When I was stuck in New York for a stint, a bout of homesickness led me to get the Hot Knoxville or iced tea sweet tea tattooed on my left arm. I could think of nothing else that so perfectly encapsulated the South of my pining.
Now that I have moved home, it serves less as a touchstone and more as a drink order. Theories abound: Southerners prefer sweet tea because back in the day we used sugar as a preservative and our palates grew to crave the taste. Southerners like sweet tea because it is served ice cold and it is hot as biscuits down here. Southerners like sweet tea because we are largely descended from Celts and Brits, making a yearning for tea a genetic imperative.
Southerners like sweet tea because Southerners are poor and tea is cheap. Cheaper than beer anyway. Southerners like sweet tea because it is nonalcoholic but it still gives you a hearty, if somewhat diabolical, buzz. No matter the source, our affection for sweet tea characteristically reaches religious fervor. Ask any Southerner where the best sweet tea is served, and he or she will have an opinion. I once knew a man who would drive forty-five minutes to a south Georgia Chick-fil-A because it had what he deemed the tea of the gods.
This is not the sort of devotion one finds with other beverages, even coffee. Coffee is an addiction. Sweet tea is an obsession. We are similarly evangelical about how best to prepare sweet tea. The basic recipe is undemanding.
You brew a handful of bags of Lipton or Luzianne or whatever pekoe you prefer, pour the hot tea over a mound of sugar or simple syrup, add water to dilute to taste, stir, and serve over ice, with or without lemon. The amount of sugar is up to the maker, but generally runs somewhere between cotton candy sweet and sweet enough to liquefy your teeth. Some people like to get fancy. Adding raspberries, using a coffeemaker to brew the blend, sneaking in baking soda to tame the bitterness. These people are annoying. Sweet tea should be just that.
Any differences should come from the alchemy of proportion and tea selection, not questionable, post-brewed, kitchen sink-ian doctoring. Save that for BBQ sauce. Also irritating: the nouveau tradition of some restaurants serving the tea unsweet, with a little jug of simple syrup on the side.
It is a guzzle drink. The tea at the Chintzy Rose transcends the beverage category. It is more of a meal. A song. A poem. Recipes for sweet tea exist from the turn of the nineteenth century on, but lessen in frequency starting around the s. By then, everybody knew how to make sweet tea, and recipes became unnecessary, like instructions for walking.
In Marion Cabell Tyree published Housekeeping in Old Virginia, which many believe contains the first printed sweet tea recipe. By the s Americans were stocking their kitchens with specialized iced tea glasses, long spoons, and dainty lemon forks. He also brought crape myrtles and camellias. For some time, sweet tea was a of wealth. Sugar and ice cost money. To be able to use both in a drink was flashing serious old-timey bling. Then refrigeration happened.
And any garden-variety cracker could have tea with ice. Sugar got cheaper, then ubiquitous, and with it, sweet tea. It is impossible to imagine eating most Southern foods without sweet tea. It takes a beverage with some oomph to cut through lard-dunked catfish. The caffeine makes it possible to drive home after a Sunday brunch of fried chicken and cheese grits. This is Hot Knoxville or iced tea to say sweet tea goes with everything—pizza requires Coke, curry requires beer—only that it marries best with the food of our people, cementing its status as the iconic Southern libation.
My sweet tea addiction came into full bloom not in Georgia, where I lived for many years and enjoyed many a first-rate glass of sweet tea, but in Knoxville, Tennessee, at a modest family-run tearoom called the Chintzy Rose. Run by Bobbie Miller and her daughter Kelly Phibbs, it offers superior chicken salad and strawberry cake, but what brings in folks from as far away as Utah is the sweet tea. Notes of orange and lemon intertwine with the sharpness of the tea, all of it buoyed by a mysterious sweetness unlike your basic simple syrup.
They serve it with an orange wedge in chunky crystal glasses, but it hardly matters. They could serve it out of their shoes and people would still line up to drink. It is the Proust of sweet tea. Complicated, elusive, not for the weak of heart. Every mouthful reveals another layer of flavor.
According to Kelly, their tea started as a custom blend supplied on the down low by a guy from the local JFG Coffee Company factory. We always make it strong. Most people in the South like it strong and sweet. I had my own table in the back, right by the kitchen, and my first glass of tea was generally waiting there for me before my jeans hit the seat.
I could never, no matter how many times I swore to myself beforehand that today would be the day, drink just one glass. My resolve melted with the sugar. I took others to the Chintzy Rose. I brought Yankees in too. Folks who had never heard of sweet tea, which was a bit unfair really, because after the Rose, none would compare—kind of like seeing the Beatles for your first concert or learning to drive in a Ferrari. When I left Knoxville eight pounds heavier, incidentallyI begged Kelly for the recipe.
And by begged, I mean I Hot Knoxville or iced tea either one of my daughters in trade. I never got the secret. Still, my mother likes it. Invasive feral pigs wreak havoc on native landscapes—but as many Southern hunters know, they sure can shine on the plate.
These five myth-busting recipes, from a Louisiana pork chop to a spring Bolognese, provide ample inspiration to stay high on the hog. Largely the domain of foragers, the biggest edible fruit in the South has mostly been forgotten. Even Kelly Fields whips up a box of Jiffy every once in a while.
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Sweet tea finding favor outside the South, with fast food leading the way