Lucie Monk Carter
The South’s fondness for sweet tea seems an uncomplicated topic, easily explained by our regional sweet tooth’s connection to sugar cane plus a literal and figurative need to “chill” in simmering springs and scorched-earth summers. However, simple concepts have a way of getting sticky when becoming iconic like sweet tea, dubbed “house wine of the South” in Steel Magnolias. Further clouding the brew are its three essential ingredients: tea, ice, and a thrust of sugar. The plot thickens like not so simple syrup ...
Even school snoozers know the role tea played in American history. Dutch and British colonists came bearing tea to be consumed hot by all classes in stylish tea gardens and in rowdy backwoods camps, making it a symbol for democracy even before tea taxes triggered discontent, smuggling, defiance, and the Declaration of Independence. To further distance themselves from the grasp of England and its imported Indian black tea, American shippers chose green tea from China. South Carolina was the lone colony to successfully grow tea in American soil after botanist and explorer Andre Michaux grew tea plants near Charleston, so importation remained necessary.
Along with their taste for hot tea, early colonists toted recipes for sweetened, alcohol-spiked cold tea punches, ancestors of iced tea, aka “ice tea” in the South. In 1839, The Kentucky Housewife advised pouring “boiling … very strong tea” on a one-and-a-fourth-pound sugar loaf (equal to two and a half cups of sugar) before chilling and adding sweet cream and a bottle of alcohol. Despite the boozy past, shortly before the Civil War, chilled tea became a teetotaler beverage and soda fountain drink. In 1857, The Saturday Evening Post touted strong, icy tea as a “soothing … thirst allaying drink.” By the 1860s, iced tea was the rage in the North but merely a midsummer day’s dream for Southerners steeped in sweat before refrigeration.
In 1868, the world’s first commercial ice plant opened in New Orleans, erasing the need for natural ice and creating a new trade. Ice plants made three-hundred-pound blocks of “artificial” ice four feet by two feet with a one foot depth, taking three days to make one block to be delivered by an iceman in a wagon pulled by a mule. Savvy mules quickly learned the routes and navigated with no one at the reins, allowing icemen to ride in the back and jump out as wagons stopped. With icepicks in hand, they chopped off the ordered amount, swung it onto their backs, and deposited it in iceboxes or holes dug in the ground and insulated with sawdust. Since cost was involved, iced tea in the South was a status drink for the affluent, but with progress in refrigeration, more could enjoy a cold glass of iced tea when they most needed it, and the general mood in summertime vastly improved.
In 1751, Jesuit priests brought the popular commodity of sugarcane to Louisiana, where it became the cash crop for plantation owners shifting from indigo after disease caused crop failure. Such was the case for Etienne de Boré, who developed granulated cane juice and boosted marketability; yet it was not until the massive influx of Creole planters and workers fleeing Haiti’s bloody slave revolt, beginning in 1791, that sugarcane became Louisiana’s economic foundation. Thanks to the refugees’ botanical knowledge and planting, harvesting, and refining skills, the extracted sugar yield increased, making Louisiana the source of most sugar in America prior to the Civil War. Today Louisiana retains its status as one of the largest commercial U.S. producers of sugar, fulfilling sugar rush expectations and our taste for sweet bourbon and rum drinks, pralines, pecan pie, and the soft drinks Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, and Dr. Pepper, all three born in the South.
The first printed sweet tea recipe, published in Marion Cabell Tyree’s Housekeeping in Old Virginia in 1879, advises steeping two teaspoons of green tea in a quart of boiling water in the morning to serve at supper after straining and pouring it into ice-filled goblets containing two teaspoons of granulated sugar and adding “a squeeze of lemon.” There is a difference between her method and the standard approach of making simple syrup of varying strengths while tea steeps for up to ten minutes, then stirring to dissolve the syrup’s sugar and combining the two hot liquids, which seems to echo the 1839 Kentucky recipe, minus the alcohol, with sugar and tea binding together as one.
Today sweet tea arrives in Southern restaurants ready to go: just pick the dispensing container labeled “Sweet Tea” or order sweet tea to get liquid gold and an ache in the teeth. Never mind, Sweetie, that Starbucks now sells cane-sweetened tea and national chains hawk our beverage. We will not renew the Civil War for sweet tea’s sake. Though the oldest recipes indicate it is our beverage—Kentucky and Virginia are part of the South, yes?—we will graciously share it.
Lucile admits she chooses unsweet tea today in Vicksburg but remembers all too well sweet tea’s sugar shock and lingering at the table after the midday meal to drain the glass to its sugary depths.