The History of Our Food; Sweet Tea

I want to start off by saying, yes, I love sweet tea. It is quite literally in the name. But I thought I would take today to give an overview of the history, cultural significance, and proper brewing method for what’s fondly referred to as the “house wine of the South.” 

History

There has been no official, academic research on the history of sweet tea. The most frequently cited source during my own research has been a book called Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree. It seems to have the oldest recorded recipe for sweet tea, which apparently at that time was made with green tea, not black as is the custom today. 

Ms. Tyree’s book suggests sweet tea has always been a status symbol. However, while today it stands as a symbol of your upbringing and culture, it was first a symbol of wealth. Sugar and ice were expensive in the 19th century Southern states, and serving a drink so heavily sweetened and cooled would have been a flaunt. It also was apparently spiked with alcohol, and frequently. Referred to as punch back then, it seems like not much has changed in the South. We certainly still enjoy our alcohol, although spiked sweet tea is not something I think I’ve ever had.

Cultural Significance

I personally am interested in the cultural history of sweet tea and how it relates to “The South.” The book I mentioned above was published in 1879, but it’s highly likely that sweet tea had been served at southern parties and gatherings for decades previous. It turned into a staple in the Deep South, but in recent years it has spread throughout the country. It seems there is some correlation between the rise of sweet tea outside of the South and the spread of McDonald’s. Some Texans in an article I read over at “Texas Monthly” claimed they had never heard of the stuff until McDonald’s started carrying it. Whereas I never knew iced, unsweet tea was common.

As sweet tea has spread, obviously it is more accessible outside of the South. This has led to it becoming less of a cultural marker. Instead of being a sure sign of someone’s place of birth and raising, it could now just mean that someone likes fast food. I’m not trying to keep it from anyone, and I’m not trying to say that Southern culture is the best as it certainly has its faults (along with every other culture). But it doesn’t mean what it once did. This may not be a good or bad thing. It’s just a thing I’ve noticed. 

So if we are losing certain markers of Southern culture, what does it mean to be Southern? To be hospitable? To be racist? These things exist in other cultures and regions, too. Is it our obsession with keeping up appearances and keeping our dirty laundry to ourselves? Even that is not ubiquitous. The only thing I can figure that really sets us apart is our food. It’s part of the reason I insist on cooking southern dishes, no matter where I am. It’s why I’ll never pronounce the “l” in “salmon,” and especially when I say “salmon patties” (one of my favorite meals). You can’t find proper fried chicken, greens, or banana pudding anywhere else. 

Nothing will sway me from my position, regardless of health factors. Trust me, everyone knows sweet tea is unhealthy, that’s besides the point. And yes, I also know that there is a high diabetes and stroke rate in the South. I blame office jobs. So much of Southern cooking is based on the appetite of farmers and manual laborers, which is what all of my grandparents were. Now that we work office and desk jobs, with far less physical exercise and little to no change to our diets, we are noticing the health issues.

I remember the shock with which I read a “Texas Monthly” article in preparation for writing this article, and the absolute hatred with which people spoke of sweet tea. Yes, it’s imported from Georgia and the rest of the Deep South, and apparently old Texans (emphasis on the old), don’t like it. A few people were quoted in the article as saying they never remember seeing sweet tea on menus until 2006 or 2008, and many blame McDonald’s for the spread of the sweet drink.

I’ve linked the article at the bottom of this post, and I recommend reading it if you have any interest at all in the subject. It was certainly enlightening.

I come from the land of sweet tea. As I’ve mentioned before and will likely mention again, I am the first person in recent history on my dad’s side of the family to live outside of Georgia. I may have one or two distant cousins who live in East Alabama, but that’s as far as the family has spread. 

I was allowed to drink sweet tea before I was allowed to drink Coca-Cola (because of the caffeine, ironically). It was the drink of choice at church potlucks, and normally there were several gallons of sweet tea, with perhaps one of unsweet tea and a few two-liter bottles of different kinds of coke. I remember being a kid and graduating from the “play outside and stay out of our way” group to the “help us set up but do exactly as we say” group. One of the first jobs given to young girls at church potluck dinner was to set up the drink table. We would estimate a rough number of people at the dinner (which was at lunch time), fill that many cups with ice, and then fill at least half of those with sweet tea. More people would end up drinking sweet tea, but some people (myself included) had a preference for one lady’s sweet tea over another. Though they never would have said so out loud. 

Clearly, it means something to me. It isn’t just a drink, an option I may or may not have, but a symbol of my culture and upbringing. Which is something I’m proud of, by the way. I’ve told my husband that we can move anywhere in the country, as long as I can still order and find the ingredients to make sweet tea. 

Brewing Method

I will admit, I think my sweet tea is one of the best. It doesn’t help my ego that several people have told me my sweet tea is the best, ranging from my baby brother to my childhood best friend. It’s part of the reason why I named my blog “Ms. Sweet Tea.” And today, I’m going to share how to make a gallon.

I want to point out that the only special thing is the method I use. A lot of people will argue over the exact process, and generally each person has their own preferred method. This is probably why people end up favoring one person’s sweet tea over another’s. I also don’t believe in adding anything besides tea bags, water, and sugar. If you need baking soda, you’re doing something wrong. I’m sorry, but I had to say it.

You’ll need;

Three or four large tea bags. I prefer Tetley, but in Texas I can’t seem to find that brand, so I revert to Luzianne, Lipton is ok too.

White sugar. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t measure this until I started brewing it in half gallons. I generally do about ¾ cup white sugar per half gallon, but I also adjust the sweetness level to the crowd that will be drinking it.

Fill a sauce pan nearly all the way with water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat off but leave the pan on the stove top and add your tea bags. Let them steep for ten to fifteen minutes. I like for the water to still be warm, but otherwise I let it sit for as long as I can. Pour over the sugar in a pitcher and stir to dissolve (the tea being warm helps with this). Then refill the pan with warm tap water, with the tea bags still in the pan, then add to the pitcher. Fill the pitcher to the top in this same method.

Relevant Links

That Texas Monthly article; https://www.texasmonthly.com/the-daily-post/sweet-tea-line/

The Wikipedia article; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweet_tea

Housekeeping in Old Virginia, by Marion Cabell Tyree; https://books.google.com/books?id=ZxUEAAAAYAAJ

2 thoughts on “The History of Our Food; Sweet Tea

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