View from the road 3

Iced tea is the fuel that ignites the engine of southern industry. It is the elixir of the gods. —Mark Twain (…if he had ever experienced southern iced tea, Twain surely would have said something just like this … but actually, this soon-to-be-famous-and-oft-repeated quote is by Charles Lehardy.

You know you are in the South when you are offered a choice between sweetened and un-sweetened iced tea at restaurants. In the home of any righteous and God-fearing southerner, no other drink will be offered, because sweetened iced tea is the complete drink, the perfect drink, the one drink that all other chilled drinks strive to be like.

One can easily determine the boundaries of the Great South by seeking out sweetened iced tea in restaurants. In Kentucky, a state that many would think of as “southern”, the availbility of iced tea is decidedly spotty. But Kentucky, it must be remembered, borders primarily on Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, rust-belt northern states where taste buds have long ago been corroded by acid rain. Kentuckians speak southern, but no decent iced tea can be found in the entire state, more’s the pity.

In Tennessee, and Arkansas, and the Bible-belt states of North Carolina and south, sweetened iced tea is the preferred drink, unless you can still find an old ice box stocked with dripping-cold bottles of Pepsi, of course.

To be worth drinking, iced tea must be “brewed”. It is not in any sense of all that is right with the world a drink that can be created from some chemical powder stirred into a glass of water. Lordy, it makes me cringe just to think about it! Iced tea must be brewed slowly in hot water, with tea bags, and simmered to a point just short of a boil, then allowed to cool.

While hot, massive quantities of pure cane sugar are added to the concentrate. It is a well-known principle of chemistry that hot tea is capable of dissolving a much greater quantity of sugar than cold tea, and the point here is to achieve a super-saturated solution, one in which there is a risk, when chilled, of a spoon being held perfectly vertical by the densely-packed quantity of sugar molecules all fighting for space.

Sugar, it goes without saying, is the only sweetener that can be used in true southern iced tea. Artificial sweeteners might just as well be used in that powdered “tea”, as it is a purely chemical extract derived from the dehydration of the by-products of paper manufacturing, and as a result, its flavor is neither improved nor diminished by the addition of artificial sweeteners, which themselves are a by-product of the fertilizer industry.

When it is perfect, southern iced tea is dark, rich, icy and sweet enough to curl your hair. Nothing can slake the thirst of any true southerner on a hot and humid day while sitting under the shade of a spreading oak tree and listening to the mournful tunes of Merl Haggard on the radio.

I am convinced that sweetened iced tea will be the only beverage available in Heaven. Which is why it’s called “heaven,” of course.

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  1. Oh, you are a man after my heart. Are there any more out there like you? (smile) But I must tell you, my mom and dad were from Illinois and I was raised to brew iced tea EXACTLY like you described and to this day I cannot tolerate those powdered granules of, well, that is NOT tea.

  2. Reading this post brought back memories of when my family moved from Minnesota to Florida when I was a kid. A new friend of my mom’s gave her the recipe for sweet tea. We’d never had anything like it. With delight, we gulped it down in massive quantities. Soon, however, we were doing the proverbial “bouncing off the wall” from all the caffeine and sugar. But it was delicious! Thanks for the fun memory.

  3. When I moved to Raleigh after college, I ordered “regular” tea, and was served sweet tea. I hadn’t known there was a difference until then.