Is there anything more Southern than sweet tea? In the hot days of summer I think not. It's cold, it's refreshing, it's invigorating and it's sweet. All those things are real plusses on hot, humid, languid Southern summer days. And it ain't bad in the winter, either. With the exception of a few chain restaurants that have taken to serving sweet tea wherever they have a franchise, sweet tea is still a pretty geographically centered treat.
If you were to blindfold someone from the South, drive for hours and then take them to a restaurant, if they ordered sweet tea and the waitress said "We don't have sweet tea" (or worse yet ... "What's sweet tea?"), our Southern mystery diner might not be able to tell you where they were, but they could tell you where they were not -- the South.
A taste from back in the day
I can remember dinners at my grandparents' house. As the meal was being prepped, there would be a pitcher of sweet tea sitting on the counter. It might even still be warm from the brewing. As the meal was ready to begin, the pitcher would be brought around and the sweet tea poured into the glasses filled with ice cubes. And this was in the days before automatic ice makers in the freezer section of the fridge. There were a pair of metal ice trays with a pull lever to free the ice with a "crunch" sound and then the cubes would be distributed to the waiting glasses. The tea would chill from the ice and the only thing left before the meal commenced was the saying of the blessing.
Sometimes, the tea had been made earlier in the day and the pitcher was already cold in the refrigerator. If it had been made earlier then you could bet the pitcher wasn't full as someone would have already poured a glass or two. Something as good as sweet tea doesn't wait around long before someone discovers it and puts it to good use.
From the many heritages we have here in the melting pot of America, we got our tea hankerings from the British who settled the East Coast of the U.S. and came in droves, especially in the South. So the story of our tea taking starts in England. And they got it from the home of tea, China.
In the great age of exploration that started in the late 1400s and lasted for the next few hundred years, the search was on for the sources of spices, herbs and foodstuffs such as coffee and tea that came from the exotic east. Before sailing ships, these items were brought to Europe with great difficulty via trading caravans, with some camel caravans stretching for miles. Items like pepper became extremely valuable and were even used as a type of money to be traded in lieu of gold coins. Now, most tables have a little, infrequently used pepper shaker sitting on the table. Salt was also precious but with all the oceans around you could get it. Salt was used as currency and Roman soldiers were paid with salt (or in Latin, "sal)" which is where we get our word "salary." But we're talking sweet, not salty today.
Tea, of course, came originally from China. The Chinese kept its growing and processing a secret from western eyes, making sure they controlled it.
In an amazing bit of tea sleuthing, a Scotsman named Robert Fortune spent three years scoping out the tea trade in China.
Discovery would have meant imprisonment at the least and execution at the worst. Amazingly enough he didn't speak Chinese. He shaved his head and grew a pigtail and using a translator, he always pretended to be from another part of China where they had a different dialect. Not only did he get the secrets to tea but he also came up with more Chinese plants like kumquats and azaleas.
Part of the reason the British wanted to get at tea was to cut out the middle man. The imports from China for them far outweighed the exports they were sending to China, making for a trade imbalance in China's favor (sound familiar?). The British already had holdings in India in the middle of the 1800s and the climate there was suitable for tea growing. Thanks to Scotsman fortune, in 1851, 21,000 seedlings and cuttings were planted in India. With zero tea plants in 1850, by 1900 India was growing 140 million pounds of tea a year. Mix that with the sugar plantations that sprang up in the 1700s and 1800s in places like the Caribbean and you had all the makings for a popular drink.
Feuding over tea
But what happens when something gets popular? The government taxes it, of course! And the British, great drinkers of tea to rival the Chinese, started taxing themselves over it. And as colonies of Great Britain, the Americans got slammed with the tax as well. Since a lot of the taxes on the colonies here were specific to us, the cry of "no taxation without representation" arose across the land.
However, colonists weren't allowed to sit in parliament. The colonists just got handed the bill. Things were getting pretty dicey with the colonial unrest here and the Brits knew it. They viewed us as upstarts but also understood some of the pressure should be relieved. In the late 1760s they actually reduced the taxes on British tea so the colonists would stop smuggling in cheaper Dutch tea. But by the next decade the tax on tea was back on and the law said the colonies could only buy tea from Britain. Protests ensued.
You've certainly heard of the Boston Tea Party when colonists disguised as Indians raided a ship in Boston harbor and threw the tea into the sea. But did you know there were three other tea parties as well? There were incidents in Charleston, South Carolina, and two in Maryland.
In Charleston, on Dec. 22, 1773, the local customs inspector seized 257 tea chests and put them in storage rather than allow them to be sold. They were later sold, in 1776, and the funds were used to finance the revolution. In June of 1774 another tea shipment in Charleston was nabbed and the tea thrown in the Cooper River rather than allowed to be sold. In Chestertown, Maryland, on May 23, 1774, a group of the Sons of Liberty boarded a tea trading ship and dumped the tea in the river.
And in Annapolis, Maryland, on Oct. 19, 1774, a British ship trying to smuggle tea past the rebellious colonists with a ton of tea in crates marked "linen" was threatened by outraged colonists. Rather than face their wrath the owners of the ship burned it along with the tea cargo. If it had been sweet, iced tea maybe there would have been a different outcome.
The South's sweet tea
When we talk about sweet tea in the South we usually mean iced sweet tea. Sugar and tea together have been around for centuries but the tea was drunk as a hot drink. There was no ice or refrigerators for most of that time. And people were so busy trying to stay warm in the old days that they wanted their tea hot. Sugar was so popular back then, when it first came on the scene in merry olde England, people put it on virtually everything, even vegetables and meat. Tea would be a natural match for sugar. They also added a dash of milk or creme, so they drank their tea like many take their coffee, with sugar and milk. One lump or two?
In the 20th century, ice came along in the South and in America took the place of the milk. Coffee had been around but tea replaced it as the national drink of the British. Here in the U.S.A. we drink a lot of both.
Do you remember the "Nestea Plunge" commercials? In the commercials featured on TV, a hot, thirsty person would take a sip of the Nestea Iced Tea and suddenly be transported poolside where they would fall backwards into the cool waters. Iced tea was that refreshing. My cousin and I would re-enact the commercial endlessly at the rec center pool in the summer, taking turns pretending to take a sip of tea and then falling backwards into the pool. I have no idea what the lifeguards thought we were up to but since we weren't running or diving into the shallow end they always let us carry on.
Thanks to some of the franchises like McDonald's, Cracker Barrel and Bojangles' that offer sweet tea, I can sometimes get it on the road in other parts of the country now. I wonder how much sweet tea sells in those foreign districts compared to here.
If I go to a restaurant where they don't have sweet tea, I've given up on trying to make my own by stirring a few packets of sugar in the icy tea for what seems like an interminable time to get the sugar to dissolve. No matter how long I seem to stir, when I quit and stare at the glass I see the granules swirling about and settling to the bottom. If they don't have sweet tea I don't order tea, it's that simple.
The patriots said "Give me liberty or give me death." I say "Give me Southern-style sweet iced tea or give me Coke!"
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.