If there is one thing that just might define the southern dinner table it would be Sweet Tea. Some might argue for Collard Greens or Fried Chicken. They wouldn’t be far off. I would be tempted to throw the many faces of gravy into the debate. But the one consistent item on the supper table for the last 60 plus years of my life has been the tall clear glass of brown heavenly elixir, poured over a heaping portion of ice and with just the right touch of sugar to satisfy a man’s thirst.
My wife goaded me. “Bet you can’t write an entire story about tea.”
Aged and confused man that I am, I am not about to walk away from a challenge. Back around 1968 Blake Yates double dogged dared me one time, and even then I wasn’t going to walk away with my head hanging.
“Bet you can’t jump that Mini Bike over that fence.”
No sir. Don’t ever double dog dare a kid on a Mini Bike. I walked away with cuts on my knees and a gash in my arm from the barbed wire, but with my pride intact. It hurt. I rode my bicycle 3 miles home bleeding all the way. Mama had her own opinion about double dog dares.
But this is a story about tea.
In the south, small children are weaned off of milk at an early age in order to indoctrinate them on the finer points of Sweet Tea. In our house, there was always a glass gallon jar or two of tea ready at any time. To run out of tea would have been unthinkable.
When the evening meal was ready, the question was never asked, “What do you want to drink for supper?” Glasses were filled with ice and tea was poured and set on the table. We never considered as kids that there were any other options.
We heard our parents talk about foreign places, like Indiana or New York, where Sweet Tea was not available. I was shocked to know that there were people who actually drank tea without sugar. We felt sorrow and compassion for the less fortunate in a southern sort of upitty way. We imagined poor children being forced to drink a tasteless tea that was not fit for a hog. And hogs will drink anything.
“Here drink this.”
“But it’s just brown water. Yuk!”
“Drink it anyway. You’ll learn to like it.”
Beth and I have traveled through some of the afore mentioned foreign territories in our time, even places like Florida. It was in Florida that I first experience a waitress asking us what we wanted to drink with our supper at Shonies Big Boy. “Tea”, we said. What self-respecting family from Georgia would ask for anything else?
“Sweet or unsweet?” she asked. You coulda knocked us off our seats. Was she kidding? She was serious. Turns out that there are so many foreigners from those other places that have infiltrated the mid-section of our sister State that restaurants were being forced to accommodate the unsweet crowd. At least we had an option.
I have been in restaurants where there was no option other than unsweet. You might as well have put me in a Dentist chair. Coke doesn’t go with meatloaf and gravy. Thing is, you can’t put enough sugar or Sweet and Low in a glass of cold unsweet tea to make it palatable. Besides, Sweet and Low is just a pulvarized version of an asprin tablet that has nothing sweet about it anyway. If the sugar is not stirred in when the tea is hot off the stove, you just can’t make it right.
When I was a kid, the Standard Coffee man would make his regular route out our way at Route 1, Locust Grove. He was a peddler of sorts. Housewives all around depended on his little white van and his deliveries to the door. Mama would buy Standard Tea, the loose leaf kind. And Instant Sanka. It’s a wonder I ever learned to drink coffee. A cup of instant Sanka was like burned motor oil to me. Never learned to like the stuff, but Mom and Dad drank a cup every morning.
Mama would scoop out a portion of tea leaves and put them in a boiling pot of water with just a pinch of baking soda. An enamel pot. White with a red ring around the top and a red handle. I still have the pot, but the handle is gone.
Anyway, the tea would foam up with the baking soda. I guess she was taking out some of the bitter taste of the tea. My cousin, Bob, just told me the other day that our Aunt Mary Eliza did the same thing. She was actually our Great Aunt. A pinch of baking soda. Traditions passed down. I would bet that my Mama did it because she learned it from her.
She would scoop Dixie Crystal Sugar out of the glass canister on the counter into the glass gallon pickle jar. The scoop was small metal version of the bigger scoops I saw at the Feed and Seed out toward Ola. I still have it and the glass canister. She would place a piece of cloth over the mouth of the jar and pour the hot tea through it to strain out the leaves. But there were always dregs at the bottom of the jar when we finished it off.
I have been a fan of Sweet Tea my whole life. Sure, my tea drinking is probably a contributing factor to my reoccurring bouts with kidney stones, but I’ll pay the price with no regrets. My blood pressure is good and thank God I’m not diabetic.
I have had tea that would put you in a diabetic coma. I’ll be the first to say that’s not right. There is such a thing as too sweet.
What I have been surprised with is how good the tea is at the local Mexican restaurant in town, San Marcos. I’ve been knowing Jose for over 20 years now. I’ve accused him of having someone’s grandmother held captive in the back, just for the sole purpose of making his Sweet Tea. He didn’t learn to make tea like that in Oaxaca or Guadalajara. I’m guessing his family is from southern Mexico.
Summerville, SC claims to be the birthplace of Sweet Tea. Beth and I went there a few years back to inspect the claim. The local tourism office is big on tea in this town of 50,000. The store fronts all tout “Tea Tasting” opportunities, which could be considered a southern form of a more cultured wine tasting, I guess.
We visited the historic Pinehurst Tea Plantation. Acres of tea bushes, which is actually a variety of Chinese Camellia grown for its flavorsome leaves, not for its flower. Pinehusrt was founded in 1888 and was honored to win a blue ribbon at the 1904 World’s Fair for its Sweet Tea. You can’t get much more southern than that.
I’m drinking water for lunch. But I can promise you this. There’s plenty of good old Sweet Tea in the fridge at home. Glasses will be filled with ice, and a little bit of heaven will be poured out. This is the true meaning of Home Sweet Home.
There you go Darling. I’ll take your bet and double dog dare you back.