Copyright © 2003, 2002, 2000 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved
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In the hot dry days of a southern summer,
which only get hotter and dryer, we may forget that not so long ago we scurried
from car to house, shivering, wet and cold, to pour ourselves a big glass of tea
at the end of a hectic day. If, like me, you are a southerner, you know that
that means a tall glass of ice cubes with the tea taking up the space around
them. I have friends from such
exotic locales as New York City who don’t understand the southern tradition of
drinking iced tea all year round.
Neither do I.
Some years ago, I ended up the token southerner at a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at Atlanta’s Emory University. I became the de facto guide for the other participants, even though I know New York City better than Atlanta. One day, I led my unsuspecting outlanders to Deacon Burton’s famous soul food restaurant(2003 update: now closed), where, of course, we had iced tea. The next day, we recounted our adventure to our seminar director, a proud Chilean, who, on learning that we drank "iced tea" asked, "Asti? Why would you drink Asti, a sparkling wine, with food like that?" All I could say was, "Gee, you ahn’t from ah-round here, ah you?" No, I did not say "you-all." We southerners know the difference between a singular and a plural.
We drink iced tea year-round; we’ve done it for over a hundred years, when ice became available year-round. (I still remember what a vivid impression the hardships of not obtaining ice in the novel Madam Bovary made on me.) For all my multicultural pretension, let it be said that if you order tea in a restaurant in the southeastern states, it does not matter if you are from England (currently the major importer, per capita, of tea) or from such tea-producing countries as China or India. Everyone gets a default tea that is syrupy sweet (no problem for people from India), dark, strong, and icy cold.
Tea, of course, is not strictly a southern thing at least since the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when settlers brewed a hearty harbor of tea to drink a toast to freedom from taxation without representation. The British, however, continued to dominate the tea trade until 1859, when American businessmen George Gilman and George Huntington Hartford began purchasing tea directly and selling it in the "Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company", the forerunner of the A&P supermarket chain. It was not until the St. Louis World’s Fair (how about a rousing chorus of "Meet Me in St. Louey, Louey, Meet Me at the Fair"?) of 1904, however, that "iced tea" was popularized.
Technically, only beverages brewed from the leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinesis (yes, it is a relative of the camellia trees that grace our winters with their flowers), should be called tea, just as only wine made from grapes is technically considered wine. There is, by the way, a "tea wine," which is fermented sweetened tea. (Beverages brewed from herbs, seeds, and berries are tisanes.) There is only one kind of tea plant, indigenous to India and China, but now cultivated far beyond its natural range, with about a fourth of the world's tea coming from Africa.
Although there are three categories of tea—black, oolong, and green—each of which has many different kinds, all teas come from the same plant. Black tea is fermented or oxidized during its preparation, oolong tea is partially oxidized, and green tea is not allowed to oxidize at all. While there are some variations in tea depending upon the soil and climate in which the plant was grown, the greatest differences come in the way it is processed.
Of course, in this country, black tea is the overwhelming favorite, while the classic Japanese tea ceremony is a green tea affair. Only in America is the teabag the standard. The Japanese have elevated tea preparation and drinking to an art. The British have made tea a national institution. There is a line from a British comedy bouncing around inside my head; someone offers to make tea, adding "I don't even like tea, but in an emergency, we always make tea."
For us southerners, tea—iced, of course—is an institution, a ceremony (almost a sacrament at church picnics), and a drug of choice. I fondly remember the "tea jug," as we called it, which was always in the refrigerator and often on summer days was drained and refilled more than once. With all that caffeine and sugar, I am surprised that my brothers and I weren't poster children for hyperactivity.
Now, I only drink iced tea when I join a friend’s large family for their "Sunday dinner." The woman who cooks this meal cooks very much as my mother does. I always ask for a glass of tea before the meal. For me, a sip of tea (of course, iced tea) is worth at least as many recollections as Proust’s famous nibble of a madeleine (which, if my remembrance of things past is correct, was accompanied by tea). As I sip it, it takes me back to hot summer afternoons in Sylvester when the best and coolest treat was a glass of tea, sweetened, with more ice than Europeans would put into a half dozen glasses, and dripping with condensation which I would rub against my forehead.
For more information about tea than you could imagine existed, listen to ”The Tea Man’s Talk: Online Information About Tea,” but notice a glaring omission: no reference to iced tea. You might especially want to read an article at the Tea Man’s site, ”Two Studies Add to the Growing Evidence That Green Tea Is Beneficial for Health.” (2003 update: The Tea Man has died, but his site is maintained.)
To get the truth about tea, southern style, it doesn’t get any better than this page of recipes, which includes what I always thought was my mother’s secret recipe (to add a pinch of soda).
Now, be warned. There is something out there called ”Long Island Iced Tea,” which, granted, does contain ice but doesn’t have a drop of tea. If anyone offers it to you, you would do well to smile sweetly, and in your honeysucklest of southern accents say, "you-all ahn’t from ah-round here, ah you?"
Keep your feet dry, your heart full of noble
thoughts, and yourself refreshed with whatever from your traditions and memories
gives you the greatest comfort.
I’ve just learned about American Classic Tea from the Charleston Tea Plantation.
More rovin’ and probably ravin’, too, will follow….
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