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?

Cool and refreshing. Click image to expand.
Cool and refreshing

"It's rough. It's been rough on that food. It's different eating here than it is at the house. Ain't got no sweet tea, and ain't got no fried chicken."
—Boo Weekley, PGA golfer from Milton, Fla., interviewed by the BBC on Day 2 of the British Open, 7/20/2007

You can't blame Boo Weekley for not knowing—before last month, the man had never left North America. And there are some fairly major associations between Great Britain and tea. But poor Weekley had the same awful realization most of us have when we leave Dixie: When you order sweet tea, you probably aren't going to get it. And even if you're lucky enough to find something bearing its name, it's probably not quite the same.

Drinking sweet tea is one of the oldest and most exceptional Southern traditions. As Dolly Parton's character in Steel Magnolias puts it, it's the "house wine of the South"—a clear, orange-to-red tinted tea brewed from six or seven Lipton or Luzianne tea bags, poured hot onto a cup or more of sugar or a pool of simple syrup, and then diluted into a gallon pitcher in the fridge. It's served over a mound of ice in a huge glass—so cold that you can watch your napkin drown in a puddle of condensation.

By "sweet tea," we mean "sweet." As one food technologist told me, some of the sweetest glasses can hit 22 Brix of sugar. That means that 22 percent of the liquid consists of dissolved sugar solids, or, to put it in more meaningful terms: close to twice what you'd find in a can of Coke. Still, there's a balance to the flavor—the tea is brewed long and strong, so it gets an astringency that can only be countered by lots of the sweet stuff.

Southerners, of course, have a taste for sugar that is demonstrably stronger than what you find up North. We like our pecan pie and pralines sweet enough to make the dentist cringe. All of the major soda companies—the Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, Dr Pepper—started in the South. Bourbon, that sweetest of whiskies, is from Kentucky. A mint julep, that classic Southern cocktail, is basically a whiskey'd up sweet tea, with mint, ice, simple syrup, and booze.

One chef I spoke with—Scott Peacock, who spent eight years bunking and writing with the Grand Dame of Southern cooking, the late Edna Lewis—suggested that Dixie's taste for sweet may have evolved from the use of sugar as a preservative. Peacock's dad grew up in a small Alabama town where they didn't have much refined sugar. In towns like that, he said, they grew cane, milled it, and put it in jars. People anticipated the crystallization of the cane sugar with great excitement, eager to stir it into their tea.

Sugar worship might account for much of sweet tea's popularity, but I think its appeal lies in the ice. Southerners seem to have a particular fascination with ice. This may stem, most obviously, from the fact that the Southern climate is often steamier than a Rat Pack schvitz. In an early essay about Southern cuisine published by the American Philosophical Society called Hog Meat and Cornpone: Food Habits in the Ante-Bellum South, Sam Hilliard wrote that a container of cool—not even cold—water, pulled from a nearby spring, was a delicacy at the table. Tea was mostly a drink for the upper class, and early on, it was the rich who had access to the ice that came down on ships or in wagons, at least until icehouses were built in cities (Southern farmers had to wait for the arrival of the Model T). If ice was a luxury, then putting out a pitcher of ice-cold tea must have been quite a bit of hospitality. One historian, Joe Gray Taylor, wrote in Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South: An Informal History that the rural electrification—and, consequently, refrigeration—wrought by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s was "probably more appreciated for the ice cubes it provided … than for any of its other services."

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.

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.