The North-South divide still influences iced tea
By Lisa Singhania
For The Associated Press
More than 140 years after the Civil War ended, a Mason-Dixon line of sorts still persists when it comes to iced tea.
Order an iced tea at a restaurant in the Deep South or Texas, and the frosty beverage set before you likely will be a world away from what you'd be served in New York or Chicago.
Sweet tea, as Southerners call their iced tea, is named for its two key ingredients — tea and lots of sugar. There's no such thing as an unsweetened sweet tea. And unlike its summer-loving Northern counterpart, sweet tea is consumed year-round.
"About 85 percent of tea consumed in the U.S. is iced. And no one in the world except for us drinks sweet tea and no one in the U.S. sweetens their tea as much as they do in Southeast," says Peter Goggi, president of Lipton's Royal Estates Tea Co.
Sweet tea is something people either love or hate. And often that relationship is determined by geography.
"It's just very, very sweet. Most people who try it in the North don't like it," says Linda Stradley, food historian and founder of food history Web site www.whatscookingamerica.net. "The first time I tried it, I didn't like it. But then I got addicted to it."
Why the emphasis on sweet in the South? Stradley speculates sweet tea may have started as a sugar-and-tea punch.
Another theory is that sweet tea may have just been a cheap and convenient stand-in for wine and other alcoholic beverages, which historically were less available and frowned upon in the South.
"Sweet tea has always been a substitute beverage for what wine was doing in other regions," says Scott Jones, executive food editor at Southern Living magazine.
"The tannins from the tea cleanse your palate, there's sweetness from the sugar and then the acidity from the lemon," he says. "It goes well with a lot of food."
Nonetheless, there is nothing delicate or ethereal about sweet tea.
In addition to the loads of sugar, sweet tea is characterized by an extremely strong tea taste. Sweet tea usually is brewed hot, with tea bags squeezed to get every last bit of flavor.
Sugar then is mixed in while the tea is hot to maximize the amount that dissolves. Water then is added to dilute some of the potency and increase the volume, then the tea is refrigerated to chill.
"Everything they tell you not to do with tea today is pretty much how sweet tea is made," says Jones, referring to the lower water temperature and more nuanced approach most hot tea drinkers use. "My mom would boil the tea bags in the water, and then squeeze the living daylights out of them."
Classic sweet tea preparations end there. Pour the tea over ice and serve with a squeeze of lemon for the perfect finish.
As with many regional food favorites, sweet tea tends to be more about memories and loyalty than precise recipes. No one, it seems, can quite make sweet tea as well as your mom or grandmother did.
"I make it how my mother made it, with regular tea bags, sugar and boiling water. There's no new-age tea making kit or anything like that," says Whitney Sloane Sauls, 27, of Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. "It's just so refreshing and it brings back good memories of childhood and of growing up."
If classic sweet tea sounds too cloying, you can offset some of the sweetness with fruit.
"You can add blueberries, peaches or pears some kind of berry or peach infusion," says Jones. "A raspberry infusion works well."
And don't feel guilty about modifying a Southern tradition. It turns out sweet tea's role in Southern cuisine is evolving.
Twenty years ago, it was hard to walk into a restaurant in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama or other parts of the Southeast and find anything but sweet tea.
But increased health consciousness as well as the growth of chain restaurants that cater to a national audience means unsweetened tea is becoming increasingly popular.
"A lot of these old-school men and women who were weaned on sweet tea you now see them drinking unsweetened iced tea with a lot of pink and blue packets," Jones says. "There's been an explosion of diabetes in the South, and the doctors are saying you have to cut the sweet tea out."
There's also more competition. The introduction of bottled iced teas and premium tea drinks at places like Starbucks means would-be sweet tea drinkers have a lot more choices.
Still, it's hard to imagine a Southern BBQ joint or family reunion without sweet tea. Sweet tea fans say the beverage will always be a part of Southern meals and traditions.
"People who grew up drinking sweet tea will continue to drink it, though maybe not so much since there is more health consciousness these days," says Sauls, who looks forward to introducing her children to the drink.
"I plan on putting them on the beach and giving them their own cups of sweet tea so they can enjoy it just like I did growing up."
Recipes for sweet tea
While many iced teas are made by steeping tea leaves in cool or sun-warmed water, the authentic sweet teas of the South are made by brewing black tea in boiling water. The recipe for blackberry iced tea uses pinch of baking soda to preserve the vibrant colors of the berries in the tea.
Southern Sweet Tea
Start to finish: 10 minutes
Makes 1 gallon
12 bags black tea
6 cups boiling water, plus additional cold water
1 to 11/2 cups sugar
Lemon wedges or fresh mint sprigs (optional)
Place the tea bags in a large heat-proof 1-gallon pitcher. Add the boiling water and steep for 5 minutes. Spoon out the tea bags and squeeze them into the tea, then discard the tea bags. Stir in 1 cup sugar. Add enough cold water to fill the pitcher. Taste and adjust with remaining sugar as desired.
To serve, pour into ice-filled glasses, then garnish with lemon wedges or fresh mint.
(Recipe adapted from Southern Living magazine)
Blackberry Iced Tea
Start to finish: 1 hour 10 minutes (10 minutes active)
Makes about 71/2 cups
3 cups fresh or frozen blackberries (if frozen, thaw before using), plus additional fresh as garnish
11/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, plus additional sprigs as garnish
Pinch of baking soda
6 bags black tea
4 cups boiling water
21/2 cups cold water
In a large pitcher, combine the blackberries and sugar. Use a wooden spoon to crush the berries and mix them with the sugar. Add the chopped mint and baking soda. Set aside.
Place the tea in a large heat-proof measuring cup. Add the boiling water and steep for 3 minutes. Spoon out the tea bags and squeeze them into the tea, then discard the tea bags.
Pour the tea into the blackberry mixture. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour. Pour the tea through a mesh strainer and discard solids. Return the tea to the pitcher.
Add cold water and stir well to dissolve sugar. Cover and chill until ready to serve.
To serve, pour into glasses filled with ice. Garnish with fresh mint and fresh blackberries on short wooden skewers.
(Recipe adapted from Southern Living magazine)
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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