Every now and then, sweet tea just gets to me…like last weekend’s Fourth of July party- I drank at least three big red Dixie cups full of it- and took a big blue Dixie cup home with me- to help me cool off in the car on the way home… I even took the damp star spangled paper napkins and rubbed my neck with it- probably had sweat beads on it so I put that blue Dixie cup on my forehead and turned the vent full blast on me to cool me off…Picnics are sometimes just hard work- fanning flies, setting out pans of food, making sure a trail of ants doesn’t wind it’s way over to the key lime pie or up the side of the coconut cake. I thought about that beautiful teething baby running a low grade fever, her daddy was in bed with vertigo and hoped they’d be alright…they recovered enough to look up and watch some fireworks I was told. Anyway, about that Sweet Tea- it put in mind of when I first learned how to make it and of another time when I learned to fully appreciate the romance of making it. There have always been controversies over this iced tea making. Whether or not to use bagged or loose tea so as not to have any of that lingering paper taste from tea bags; whether to use Lipton, Red Diamond or Luzianne. Mimi preferred Luzianne, some said it was her French Huguenot background, from her side-saddle-horse-riding momma– Hattie LaVada Sparks.
Some said Mimi’s momma never cast a shadow in her own kitchen; her husband and double first cousin, John Thomas Sparks spoiled her to death I’ve been told. But she always had good help; they taught my Mimi how to make biscuits light as a feather, corn sticks fit for the King of England, how to wring a chickens neck, pluck it and steam it to perfection- serve it with southern grown rice speckled green with fresh thyme and swimming in new butter, and the making of iced tea. One of my uncles owned an Ice House- so you know we know. Well, you had to start with a sugar syrup. Don’t listen to anyone who ever tells you differently- sweet tea wasn’t worth drinking if you didn’t start with a sugar syrup. White Cane sugar, from sugar cane grown in Alabama, then refined. Start a pitcher of sweet tea with straight sugar and that sugar just sank to the bottom of the pitcher and sat there sulled up. Sugar Syrup is the basis, then you could add fresh pressed mint to it or orange zest if you were using Orange Pekoe, lemon zest if you had Earl Gray- there’s a science to it. One cup of sugar to one cup of water, heated gently until every single grain of sugar was dissolved. Then you can doctor it up however you want to; and I’ve been told that the doctoring of it decided how strong you wanted it to be when it cooled off. Long Island Tea probably was provoked by somebody from the South; though I have no personal first hand knowledge of this concoction.
There are lots of recipes for Southern Sweet Tea but if they don’t start with a sugar syrup? Find another one. I married a man who was raised on sweet tea but prefers ‘unsweet’– he’s one of those purists- yet in restaurants all over the South, the waitresses now know to ask ‘sweet or unsweet’? I’ll not venture to guess why this is- but I suspect it’s an influx of Yankees. I rarely make sweet tea just for myself- unless I know that’s what some of my guests will drink. I will admit that there is a mint infused sugar syrup with my name on it in the refrigerator. Now, let me tell you how I first observed the ‘appreciation’ of sweet tea.
I was born in April of 1952, a leap year, after a hard winter. That sentence alone should speak volumes to you. We lived on a circle in Birmingham, there were nice brick homes all around. Right at the other curve in the circle lived Roxanne Roberts. Her daddy was a travelling salesman, her mother looked like Doris Day. Roxanne was a blue eyed blonde who looked just like she’d stepped out of a Madame Alexander Box. I had stick straight black hair with pale green eyes- Mimi said they were from the French side of the family- her sister, Aunt Trix peered at me and said to my momma- ‘Gene, isn’t she unusual?’ Every. single. time. she saw me.
By some quirk of fate, Roxanne liked me- I had a long ponytail, like she did, but hers ended in a perfect curl; mine hung as straight as a horse’s tail. She had perfected a walk- sort of like a duck, which resulted in her ponytail swinging from side to side, it was remarkable. Her momma called my momma and said Roxanne wanted me to come over for a tea party. When I got there, with my Tiny Tears doll- which I suspect now, was the draw for Roxanne- we went out to their ‘Florida Room’– complete with louvered pebbled glass and handles that cranked the glass closed or shut- they were open that day. A breeze was blowing…
While we were checking out the wonders of Tiny Tears, Roxanne’s momma was in the kitchen right off the Florida Room- making a sugar syrup for the tea. She had on red pedal pushers and a white blouse tied at the waist and was barefooted. She brought our tea and cookies out to a little table she had set up for us and poured our sweet tea in the sweetest pressed glass with a lemon slice in each and a sprig of mint. Roxanne said she always made two pitchers, one plain and one for her daddy. I had never heard of such luxury.
Mrs.Roberts was fixing his tea while we played. I heard her setting out some glasses and opening bottles. She poured herself a long tall glass from Mr. Robert’s pitcher- she was stirring it with an iced teaspoon, she took a long drink of it-humming to herself. We girls were having a good time- when all of the sudden, Mrs. Roberts broke out in song- ‘Summer Time…and the livin’ is easy…’ She paused profoundly, like she was thinking about it long and hard- then she sang out even louder…’Fish! are jumpin’! and the cotton is High!’ Swinging her head around and smacking her lips, with that perfect shade of pink… Mr. Roberts came home from out of town. Roxanne hung back- ‘shh…watch!…’ Mrs. Roberts was swayin’ her hips and singin’- it was actually pretty good. She was no Ella Fitzgerald but had the moves down pat. Mr. Roberts apparently liked it. He picked her up by her waist and swung her around and said ‘Honey, I’m just dyin’ for a glass of that sweet tea!’…. It is indelible in my memory- Roxanne never asked me back for a tea party- I strongly suspect it was because she found out I was impersonating Elvis from age 7 on up to about age 9. But I sure never forgot there’s a certain romance to making sweet tea.
Oh lord, y’all…what a story! It’s like every other Southern tale …part myth, part truth and part outright lies… Now don’t forget to add your stories to the pile…for Make Me Laugh Monday…just leave ’em in the comment section with your link!
Love y’all, Camellia
*photograph from Taste of the South- the link at the top of the page above the Sweet Tea includes recipes for Sweet Tea but don’t forget you’re looking for the ones with Sugar Syrup