Sweet tea is a heritage.
You’ll hear people wax poetic about grits as if it’s still 1885 and we’re all out here eating boiled cornmeal porridge every morning.
You’ll hear about biscuits and gravy.
You’ll hear about barbecue.
All of which is well and good, but if you want the purest distillation of the South in culinary form, pour a glass honey, cause we’re about to talk about the nectar of the gods known as sweet tea.
By the way, that’s the last time I’m calling it sweet tea. The truth is, it’s just tea. You order tea in any respectable Southern establishment and it’s coming in cold and sweet.
If your wait staff is considerate, they might ask you to clarify just to avoid any painful discussions about the assumptions you made, but if you want anything other than sweet iced tea, you’d best order specifically.
Now, without further ado, behold the tea commandments:
1. Thou shalt make your tea with three ingredients
Water. Tea. Sugar.
But not necessarily in that order. And let’s get one thing clear. Taking unsweet tea and dumping sugar in it at the table does not fix anything. Unsweet tea is an abomination, an affront to all that is good and pure and holy upon this Earth.
Can you take an abomination, stir in a pack of sweetener and make it better? No, you cannot, and you should go immediately to confession for even considering it.
2. Thou shalt add the sugar when the tea is boiling hot
To make true Southern tea, the sugar must be added when the tea is steaming so the sugar becomes one with the drink. If there are sugar granules in the bottom of your glass, you don’t have tea. You have a chemistry experiment gone wrong.
If someone hands you tea with sugar granules floating around in it, go in the kitchen and give whoever made that tea an “F”. Then, get in your car, drive to their mama’s house and revoke her Southern Mama card.
3. Thou shalt not add a bunch of frou-frou crap
Tea is perfection. It needs nothing more to be kept in a pitcher in the fridge. It needs no garnish. It needs no frou-frou accompaniment.
A lemon slice is acceptable, but anything more than that and you run the risk of ruining a good thing. Not everyone abides by this philosophy. The peach-happy people in Georgia will try to sell you a peach tea. If you order a tea and someone brings you peach tea, immediately take the glass outside and chuck it into the street.* Then turn around three times and spit, lest you anger the gods.
Other people want to toss in all manner of berries and mint or whatnot. These people are bad and should feel ashamed.
*Peach tea is acceptable if it’s from Pal’s Sudden Service (located a little further East to the Smokies)
4. Thou shalt allow an Arnold Palmer in some situations
The only acceptable alternative tea is the Arnold Palmer: 60 percent tea, 40 percent lemonade. This drink is named after the legendary golfer and is given special dispensation because Arnold Palmer was exceptionally cool.
If you are exceptionally cool and like an alternative version of tea so much that the whole world just starts calling that drink by your name, we will also carve out a special exemption for you. Unless your drink involves unsweet tea, at that point you could be the Fonz and you still wouldn’t be cool enough.
The Arnold Palmer is also useful if someone gives you tea but skimped on the sugar. In that situation, the Arnold Palmer is a decent way to salvage things.
5. Thou shalt look the other way if someone is responsibly adding hard liquor
Interestingly, iced tea didn’t become a gigantic thing in the South until prohibition. Apparently, being forced to give up the hard stuff drove many Southerners to tea – which brings us to the other alternative use of tea, hiding a decent amount of hard liquor.
Sure, rum and coke has got a lot of style points, but Long Island ain’t the only place where getting hammered on iced tea is a good idea.
6. Thou shalt not use ice to cool the tea
Iced tea is cold tea served over ice to make it colder. Too many places brew the tea and then pour it over ice to cool it down and serve it, which melts the ice and waters down the tea.
This is the result of poor planning. You have to give enough time in between the time you brew the tea and the time you serve the tea for the fridge to chill the tea sufficiently. I believe Moses said it best, “Stop using ice to cool your tea, you Philistines.”