What makes Southern sweet tea so special?

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Aug. 8 2007 1:06 PM

I Wish I Lived in a Land of Lipton …

What makes Southern sweet tea so special?

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Offering up a glass of sweet tea on a hot day in the South is as welcoming a gesture as passing the doobie at a Phish show. It's so ingrained in the Southern DNA—Marion Cabell Tyree included the recipe in a cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia as early as 1879—that people now post videos online of their infants sampling the stuff. It's a frequent menu item for the condemned, as well as a centerpiece at church suppers. As an April Fools' Day prank in 2003, Georgia State Rep. John Noel introduced a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for a restaurant owner not to include sweet tea on the menu. Most Southerners can easily tell the difference between fresh sweet tea and the stuff from concentrate—and unless their sugar jones is too strong that day, chances are they'll send the latter back.

It's a refreshing combination of sweet and cold, sure, but how does something that's simply tasty become the unofficial beverage for an entire region? Well, there's this: The South reveres its traditions, and sweet tea is one of them. Dixie has had some embarrassments in its time: There's that whole Civil War thing, the whole Judge Roy Moore thing, that whole Naples, Fla., Swamp Buggy Queen thing, to name a few. Getting your nose rubbed in your own traditions too many times makes you cling to those that aren't, well, illegal. And you revere them as much because they have proven resistant to change as you do for their particular qualities.

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For me, personally—and I suspect I'm not alone—sweet tea is a primal link to my own Southern past. I grew up a Jewish kid in Atlanta, with a mom from Brooklyn, N.Y., and a dad from Cleveland. To assimilate with my classmates, I quickly learned to say y'all, talk about Herschel Walker, put honey on my biscuits, and enjoy sweet tea. While my parents made us drink an unsweetened mint tea blend at home, I strong-armed them into stopping by Po Folks on the way home from baseball practice. A middling Southern-style chain (we didn't know enough to eat at Mary Mac's), known for horrible phonetic misspellings, heavily larded chicken, and, most importantly, sweet tea served in Mason Jars, it was practically the only place I could get hooked up properly—at least, that is, until I began raiding the always-full homemade pitchers in my friends' refrigerators.

I may live in Massachusetts now, but I still consider myself Southern at heart. In the fall, I ask the bartender to let me watch the Bulldogs game. In the spring, I feel a potentially suicidal need to stop wearing a coat. And in the summer, I still look for sweet tea. Even on the rare occasion I can find someplace that has it on the menu, it's often slightly off. Maybe it isn't sweet enough. Maybe it's the lack of free refills. Whatever it is, it chills me.

Jeffrey Klineman is a freelance writer in Cambridge, Mass. His work has appeared in Boston magazine, George, Commonwealth, Razor, Self, and Penthouse.