Nothing’s sweeter than tea made Southern style

Features Column

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

‘That’s not the way my mama does it,” he said and it must have taken everything I had not to knock him senseless. Granted, it was more than 20 years ago ... but I am certain I gazed upon him not so kindly. It actually may have been our very first newlywed bone of contention. His mama’s way was perfectly fine and produced wonderful results, I could attest. But my way was just as good.

And unless he wanted to do it himself for the rest of his life ... he’d better get used to it.

He was stuck with my sweet tea.

I once heard a man describe his granny’s sweet tea as tears from the sweetest angel in heaven. I don’t know about that, but I do know that tea isn’t tea unless it’s sweet. Not too much sugar ... not too little sugar ... just right. There’s not much more disappointing on a hot day than pouring yourself a big old glass of sweet tea, taking that first swig, and finding that it’s (a) either thick as syrup or (b) bitter from too little, or none at all. And everybody knows that once it’s ice cold, you can’t add real sugar because it just settles to the bottom. A tragedy.

Sweet tea is an artform that’s been around a whole lot longer than I realized. And I’m not talking about that hot stuff in a little cup. I’m talking about real sweet tea over ice, so cold the glass sweats. I must admit, too, that there is something to the theory that all sweet tea tastes better in a Mason jar. I believe it does.

Apparently, sweet tea was a luxury in the early 1900s and signified wealth because tea, sugar and ice were expensive. Ice was the most valued because it had to be shipped from sometimes a long way off. The oldest know recipe for sweet tea was found in an 1879 cookbook called “Housekeeping in Old Virginia.” The writer was born in Texas, which makes me assume she moved to Virginia since she felt compelled to write about keeping house in Virginia.

When one of my northern acquaintances asked for “plain tea” in a local restaurant here, both the waitress and I looked at her like she had an extra head. The waitress kindly told her that they didn’t serve plain tea, only sweet and unsweet. That’s when my friend told her that’s what she meant, unsweet. She should have stopped there.

“I don’t want any of that disgusting sweet stuff,” she said. “And hold the ice.”

I am still surprised they did not kick us out.

Everyone has their own version of perfect sweet tea and how to make it. Mine is simple.

Boil some water. Put three tea bags (or one large one) into a pitcher. Add sugar. You don’t have to measure it — just eyeball it. When the water boils, pour it over the tea bags and sugar. Let it steep. Then add cold water.

Apparently, some people think that’s just wrong.

Some people boil their water and add the tea bags to the actual pot. After it steeps they pour it over the sugar, which has been diluted by a little cold water. Then they add a whole lot more cold water.

And ... there are still others who only use hot water from the tap and fill up a pitcher that has sugar in it, then douse the tea bags up and down in it. That, quite honestly, upsets me.

The one ingredient I have never, ever tried in my sweet tea is one that I have heard over and over truly does work. I am afraid. Very afraid.

It’s baking soda.

Allegedly, just a quarter teaspoon in a pitcher of iced sweet tea does something magical. I just can’t bring myself to do it.

“That’s not the way my mama does it,” he said, and I still wonder how I kept from knocking him senseless. He can talk about my vacuuming. He can talk about my chicken. He can even talk about the way I load the dishwasher.

But don’t talk about the way I make sweet tea. That would be a tragedy.

Contact columnist Mandy Flynn at flyn1862@bellsouth.net.