ROBERT ST. JOHN: Iced tea – the perfect hot weather beverage

By Robert St. John

It’s been extremely hot in Mississippi lately. Though this is nothing compared to the heat wave we experienced 32 summers ago.
I was working a construction job after my freshman year of college, installing pink-roll insulation in attics of newly built houses. It was the worst job I have ever had. The year was 1980 and we had a three-week stretch with temperatures over 100 degrees every day. When laying fiberglass insulation, one has to wear long sleeves and long pants which are not conducive to attic temperatures in the blistering months of July and August.
That is the summer I began to drink iced tea.
I am so Southern my great-grandmother’s name was Bubba. But I never drank tea as a child. My brother and I drank milk – a lot of milk. He and I usually finished off a half-gallon at breakfast and a half-gallon at supper. Soft drinks were rare and came in much smaller sizes than what we have today. To drink a 6.5-ounce bottle of Coke was a rare treat.
Today, iced tea is my go-to beverage. My love of iced tea is a direct result of spending eight hours a day in sweltering attics on a construction job.
The foreman gave us a short break for lunch and we would usually go to a meat-and-three diner for a cheap, quick bite. $3.75 bought a protein, three vegetables, cornbread and a glass of iced tea. If I wanted a soft drink, I would have to pay extra for a 12-ounce bottle and there were no free refills. My budget was tight, so I opted for the free tea. At first it was just something that was cold and wet. Eventually I developed a taste for it.
I drank gallons of sweet tea over the course of that summer. In those days I opted for sweet tea. As my metabolism slowed and my waist increased, I added artificial sweetener to unsweetened tea. Since my return from Europe, I have been drinking a lot of unsweetened tea with no sugar or artificial sweetener added.
Iced tea is the perfect hot weather beverage. It’s natural, it’s inexpensive, it’s easy to make, and it is the best liquid accompaniment for Deep South lunch foods.
Iced tea has been around in the United States since the 1870s. The first mass exposure was at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. An Indian tea merchant showed up and tried to sell hot tea. Having no takers, he added ice to his beverage and history was made. A few years later a Southerner dumped five pounds of Domino sugar into a gallon of the steeping-hot liquid to make it sweet and syrupy.
Ten years ago I wrote a short treatise on iced tea for my third book. I reworked it for today’s column.
Sweet tea is a Southern thing
Down here, when we speak of tea, we mean sweetened tea with ice. Nothing complicated, just boiling water, a few tea bags, and enough sugar to make the spoon stand up – all served on the rocks.
If you order tea in California it is likely to arrive with the flavor du jour and herbal trend-of-the-moment such as lemongrass or calendula. In Arizona they might serve it with a slice of lime, in Florida, a wedge of orange. In New England the tea will be hot.
Iced tea should not be hip or cool or chic. Iced tea should not be scented with jasmine. Iced tea should be sweet and cold.
Iced tea gets sweeter the deeper one travels into the South. This is true of Southern women as well.
The formula for finding the best sweet tea is easy: Only drink tea in a state that hosts a member of the Southeastern Conference. It is there that you will find first-rate sweet tea, the two exceptions being East Texas and parts of North Carolina. States with two teams in the Southeastern Conference – Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee – make the sweetest iced tea.
Iced tea is the house wine of the South.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.