Stop thinking of sweet tea as a Southern monolith

The real story of sweet tea is one of perpetual reinvention
Sweet tea
Photograph by iStockphoto.com

Photograph courtesy of istockphotos.com

It’s not like I’m a health nut, or worse, a Yankee. I was born and raised in Tennessee by people born and raised in Tennessee by people born and raised in Tennessee. I’ve lived in Georgia for a third of my life. But I don’t remember the last time I drank sweet tea.

Blasphemy, I know. I just prefer acts of violence against my blood sugar levels to be committed in pie form.

But while sweet tea rarely thrills me as a beverage, it fascinates me as an archetype.

Inside the Frigidaire of the American consciousness, we have a full pitcher of sweet tea forever at the ready. It’s the ultimate symbol of Southern hospitality and authenticity, the official beverage of How We Do Things Down Here.

But I believe this way of thinking does sweet tea, and the South, a disservice.

To cast sweet tea as a monolith is to cast the South as a monolith. A common mistake—but we Atlantans, in our infinite patchworkiness, should know better.

The idea of sweet tea seems simple enough. But ask a dozen different Southerners how they make it, and you’ll get a dozen different replies. Sweet tea cuts across lines of race, class, and politics like nothing else in the South. It’s like barbecue, with microvariations not by state or city but individual kitchen.

Sweet tea boasts no official origin story, just rhizomatic development of a notion over time, from Britain to the American colonies and then southward, evolving to accommodate supplies, technology, and taste.

The earliest known recipe, from the 1879 cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia, calls for loose-leaf green tea poured over sugar and ice. Black tea sweetened with sugar stirred in while hot—which many purists insist is How It’s Done—wasn’t standard until the 1940s, and only then thanks to World War II rations. And that image of the forever-full pitcher in the fridge is only as old as the home refrigerator itself.

My grandmother makes her sweet tea with orange juice. At restaurants my dad orders it unsweet and dumps in “Sweet’N Skinny.” When I was a kid, my mom made it by the glass: instant Lipton powder stirred with a long silver spoon. These days, when I do drink it, I like it with lemon and whiskey—preferably on a hot night, so the ice melts faster.

The real story of sweet tea is one of perpetual reinvention. So if it must symbolize anything, I want it to stand for a South that embraces its own multitudes, even the lost souls like me.

Let’s unyoke poor old sweet tea from the burden of How We Do Things Down Here and allow the tradition to take its rightful place: in the eye of the tea-holder.

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

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