(By the way, I didn’t write the newspaper title for this piece. I find it a little confusing given the context of the column.)
I have traveled all over America for the past year and a half. I have worked in hospitals large and small, in areas urban, rural and utterly remote. I have flown through so many airports that I have an internal list of my favorite concourses in which to be trapped by weather, and how to run through them when late for a flight.
Because travel for work is a lonely business, and when I’m lonely I eat, I have also accumulated quite a selection of favorite restaurants and fast-food places in the assorted towns where I have traveled and plied my trade. I find the Denver International Airport to be a place of delightfully varied gastronomic opportunity. I know that in Jasper, Indiana, nothing compares to the Schnitzelbank if it’s genuine German food you crave. The Double Barrel Saloon, in Craig, Colorado, has wonderful lamb stew, from locally grown livestock. That’s just scratching the surface.
However, as a wandering Southerner, it’s a lot harder to find proper sweet tea. This fact, dear reader, is just below ‘leaving wife and children behind’ as a source of deep pain and angst for this particular aficionado.
I think it’s important that we hold tightly to sweet tea as an integral part of our common bond as Southerners. So as we enter Spring and Summer, truly ‘tea time,’ it’s a good time to be reminded of what tea, proper iced, sweet tea, is and isn’t. Let me start with the negative. God did not intend tea to be sold in a large metal container under pressure, then poured through plastic tubes to a spout right next to the Coke, Pepsi, Sprite or Mountain Dew. It may say tea, but it isn’t. It’s heresy.
Next, tea shouldn’t be put into the ‘freshly brewed’ dispenser from a large plastic bag of tea, sent from some far away place where it was not made by loving Southern hands. That is trickery, mockery, disdain for all things holy and pure. When I recently discovered this travesty at a favorite establishment, I was out of sorts for days. ‘I can’t believe they, well, it’s…wrong!’ My daughter is tired of hearing about it. ‘That upset you didn’t it?’ Eyes rolling. These are not bags of tea in my opinion. They are bags of syrup, unpleasant at best.
Likewise, sweet tea isn’t just unsweetened tea with wretched little sugar packets poured into the cold, unrelenting water to collect on the bottom like dead sea-monkeys. How many times, dear Southerners, have we been in some northern clime and asked for sweet tea, only to be told by an unenlightened individual, ‘we have sugar.’ Ghastly.
Furthermore, as with fine wine, beer or bourbon, the tea lover can tell in a glance if things are right. In one Mid-Western restaurant, I was served a glass of iced tea that looked very much like red-clay from my yard, stirred and left suspended in dirty water. It appeared as if it had been made the year before and left in the back of the fridge for the next time some yokel asked for sweet tea. I took a picture to remember the horror.
There’s no single way to make sweet tea. Hot water in a pot, iced-tea maker, sun tea and others. We all probably have our own techniques and preferences. And to avoid contention and alarm, I won’t recommend any particular way of making the delightful nectar of Southern life.
In the end it is a medium amber color, sweetened with sugar and mixed with a little extra water to balance the flavor. It smells like hot days and cool evenings, like the beach and Thanksgiving. And when mixed with ice, it is truly the drink of the gods; ambrosia below the Mason Dixon Line.
It is one of our many gifts to the world, like shrimp and grits, barbecue, shag and camouflage lingerie. We drink it with our meals, by the pool, in the car, at work. We drink it at parties and picnics and it is, unlike Bourbon or beer (of similar color palate) fully acceptable and expected at church dinners. ‘Y’all, weren’t the Leaps supposed to bring tea? We should pray for them. Something must be wrong.’
God help us, we’re entering a Presidential election cycle. We are divided on many issues. But at least in the South, we should be united by one thing across all lines of race, sexuality, gender, religion and party alliance.
And that thing is sweet iced tea.