Every now and again Southern food, Southern habits – Southerness – gets a little boost. The very idea of the South becomes a trend, some new chef opens a restaurant with new take on Southern food (I myself argue that the very essence of Southern food is its old take, but that’s another story…), or some book or movie is released and everyone is rushing to get on the Southern bandwagon (or blues wagon). And in this fervor, there is inevitably, much waxing poetic about the beauty of Sweet Tea. Images are drawn of men in seersucker suits and women in organdy dresses sitting on wide verandas languorously fanning themselves and drinking cut-crystal glasses of Sweet Tea with generous sprigs of mint. I am convinced that silver patterns like Grand Baroque and Francis I are so popular in the South, not because they are so ornate, but because there are iced tea spoons available. I love that image. But here’s the truth. Since the arrival of electric fans and central air-conditioning, no one does much porch settin’ anymore. Its 100 degrees in the shade with 99% humidity in Memphis for 5 months out of the year, and the mosquitoes are killer. And my last organdy dress was as worn as a flower girl in a wedding at age 6. But there is something to be said about the tea.
Yes, we do drink a lot of tea in the South. And we just say tea. If you asked for tea, no one would bring you a good English cuppa, piping hot in a mug. Iced is assumed. Ice tea, that’s what we say. It makes sense. It’s very refreshing and very cheap. The image that comes to my mind when you mention Sweet Tea is not that Tennessee Williams, Hollywood image of iced tea as social status, but those red or amber colored, textured plastic glasses from diners, catfish cabins, barbeque joints and hamburger dives. That’s were real southern Sweet Tea lives. And for the most part, when the charming waitress who calls you honey or sugar takes your order, you ask for tea and she says “sweet or unsweet.” It’s not a given. Some people actually prefer to sweeten their own tea. I do. True Sweet Tea makes my teeth itch. It can be cloying and sugary and syrupy. Anyway, many restaurants now use some kind of syrup product or “tea concentrate” to make their Sweet Tea now, basically high-fructose corn syrup with “tea” flavorings, diluted with water.
At home, I drank ice tea all the time. My mom made a concoction of tea, lemonade mix and sweetener, with mint when it was growing in the garden, always in a brown ceramic pitcher. Some years ago, she stopped. She claimed that her many pitchers a week chore had run its course and she was done. I understand, but it makes me a little sad. Even now, every time we gather for family dinner, someone still asks if there’s tea. My grandmother occasionally made tea for Sunday lunch with pineapple juice from the little 6-ounce cans. That is good tea. But I have absolutely no memories of going to a friend’s house on any given day and being offered a glass of tea – just brewed tea, in a pitcher on the counter, with sugar and lemon slices. As point of fact, the most interesting iced tea I was ever served was in remote northern Thailand, where a tray was brought to the table with a pitcher of plain tea, a glass full of ice cubes made of tea, a bowl of mint leaves and a little pitcher of sugar syrup. I keep thinking I’ll do that a party sometime.
Now, this is not to say that tea only plays a downmarket role in Southern tradition. Tea is in fact often served at ladies luncheons or family brunches, on a silver tray laden with a crystal pitcher of tea, a bowl of lemon slices, a silver sugar bowl, and fine glasses filled with ice, condensation quickly forming on the sides. But for the most part, tea served at social events, from wedding receptions to dinner parties, fish frys to weekend barbecues, is more of a tea punch. Something more than just plain brewed tea. Served in a pitcher or a punch bowl, made up in old gallon pickle jars. People bring tea punch to funerals. Those pickle jars are guarded like finest crystal, labeled and marked; they are family heirlooms. Every Southern hostess has her way of making tea punch, it’s not a fixed idea, though many recipes are passed down and around.
Front Porch Tea Punch
This is my simplified version of a popular Memphis tea punch. It was traditionally made with two 6-ounce cans of frozen lemonade and limeade, but as far as I can tell, they don’t make those anymore. So I use a frozen citrus blend, like pineapple orange or Five Alive.
4 family-size tea bags (I prefer Luzianne brand)
¾ cups sugar, plus more to taste
1 (12-ounce) can frozen citrus blend juice concentrate, thawed
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
½ Tablespoon almond extract
Place the tea bags and sugar in a gallon pickle jar or container. Pour over 7 cups of boiling water and stir gently to agitate the sugar. Leave to steep for 10 – 15 minutes, until you have a very dark amber brew. Discard the tea bags. Add the juice concentrate and stir well. Leave to cool slightly, about 20 minutes, then fill the container to the top with cold water. Stir in the extracts and taste for sweetness, adding sugar if desired.
This tea will keep covered on the counter or in the fridge for a few days. Stir well before serving over ice.