Every now and then, Sweet Tea just gets to me…at a picnic earlier this summer- I drank at least three big red Dixie cups full of it- then took a big blue Dixie cup home with me- to help me cool off in the car on the way home… I had the cup swathed in a paper napkin, to catch the drips. It’s been so hot, I rubbed my neck with the cool damp napkin- probably had sweat beads on it. Then, I put that blue Dixie cup on my forehead and turned the air vent full blast on me to cool me off…Picnics are fun, but 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… Anyway, about the Sweet Tea- it put me 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 Sweet Tea. There have always been controversies over Southern Iced Tea making. Whether to use bagged Tea, so as not to have to strain it- or to use loose Tea Leaves so as not to have any of that lingering paper taste from tea bags; whether to use Lipton, Red Diamond or Luzianne. My grandmother preferred Luzianne, some said it was of her French Huguenot side-saddle-horse-riding Momma– my great grandmother, Hattie LaVada Sparks.
Hattie LaVada never cast a shadow in her own kitchen; I’ve been told her husband and double first cousin, John Thomas Sparks spoiled her to death, most especially with Good Household Help; the cooks 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, then pluck, brine, steam it to perfection- then serve it with southern grown Rice speckled green with fresh Thyme, swimming in Lemon Butter; and of course the making of Sweet Tea. One of my uncles owned an Ice House- so you know we know how to ice it down. Well, you start with a Sugar Syrup. Don’t listen to anyone who ever tells you differently- Sweet Tea isn’t worth drinking if you don’t start with a Sugar Syrup. White Cane sugar, from sugar cane grown in Alabama, then refined is just the start… Make a pitcher of Tea with straight sugar and that sugar just sinks to the bottom of the pitcher and sulks.
- Sugar Syrup is the base, you can dress it up by adding
- Orange Zest if you’re using Orange Pekoe,
- Lemon Zest if you had Earl Gray- there’s a science to Sugar Syrup.
- One cup of sugar to one cup of water, heated gently until every single grain of sugar is dissolved. Then you can doctor it up however you want to.
- 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’– like some…he’s a purist. In restaurants all over the South, the waitresses 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- yet if I know some of my guests will want it, I make it. I will admit that there is a Fresh Mint Infused Sugar Syrup with my name on it in the refrigerator, and hopefully I’ll have some fancy ice cubes to dress it up! Now, let me tell you how I first observed the ‘Romance’ 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 it. Right at the downward curve in the circle lived Roxanne Roberts. Her daddy was a travelling salesman, her mother looked like Doris Day. Roxanne. a blue eyed blonde looked just like she’d stepped out of a Madame Alexander Box. I had stick straight black hair with pale green eyes- Mimi said my eyes were from the French side of the family- her sister, Great Aunt Trix always peered at me and said to my momma- ‘Gene, isn’t she unusual?’ Every. Single. Time. Trix saw me. I’m getting off on a tangent…
By some quirk of fate, Roxanne liked me- I had a long ponytail, like she did, but Roxanne’s 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. Roxanne’s momma called my momma. Roxanne wanted me to come over for a Tea Party. With my Tiny Tears doll in tow- 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 open… 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 was barefooted and had on red pedal pushers and a white blouse tied at the waist. She brought our Tea and Cookies out to Roxanne’s Tea Table and poured our Sweet Tea in sweet little juice glasses with a lemon slices and sprigs of mint. Roxanne said her momma always made Two Pitchers, one plain and a special one for her daddy. I had never heard of such luxury.
Mrs.Roberts was fixing his tea while we played. I heard her opening bottles and setting out some glasses, filling the pitcher with ice. She poured herself a long tall glass from Mr. Robert’s pitcher. Stirring it with a long iced teaspoon, she took a generous drink of it-humming to herself. 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 the song long and hard, took another long sip leaning back- Then, whew! She dipped down and sang even louder…‘Fish! are jumpin’! and the Cotton is High!’ Swinging her head around; smacking her lips, with that perfect shade of red lipstick… My Momma never did that when she made our Iced Tea! 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 Roxanne’s momma had the moves down pat. Mr. Roberts apparently liked it. He picked Mrs. Roberts 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- unforgettable. Roxanne never asked me back for a Tea Party- I strongly suspect it was because she found out I had been 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 make yourself a Sugar Syrup, one part sugar to one part water, simmered gently until every sweet grain has melted, pour into a glass pitcher, add the brewed tea and stir…‘Summer Time! And the livin’ is Easy…So hush little baby don’t you cry….’
Love y’all, Camellia
*photograph from Taste of the South and may be subject to copyright- click link at the top of the photograph- it includes recipes for Sweet Tea- don’t forget you’re looking for the ones with Sugar Syrup *photograph of Sweet Tea includes some of those fancy ice cubes I was talking about! photograph is obviously mine