Thursday, April 22, 2010

South's priceless sweet tea secrets revealed

It’s been called the “House wine of The South.” It’s one of the few pure unchanged links to the past, but as imbedded in today’s culture as ever.

Look in almost any “ice box” throughout the South and you will almost always find a big pitcher of cold sweet tea. Eat in any restaurant which does not have a wine list, and you will be offered “Sweet Tea or Un.” Often, you will not get a choice.

Sweet Tea is not “sweetened” tea, nor is it tea with sugar added at the table. It is created in the kitchen through a process akin to alchemy which results in a liquid unlike any other. It is a compound all its own, made from scratch, and the second thing a young girl in the South learns to make. The first, naturally, is biscuits.

There are variations, of course, but generally, sweet tea is made by boiling about two quarts of water to the point of creating steam - adding just the right amount of black tea leaves (stronger tasting than green), or a pre-known amount of Lipton tea bags, removing the boiling mixture from heat and allowing it to steep for five or six minutes. (Some say longer.)

The tea is then strained and poured into a pitcher in which a cup of granulated sugar or prepared sugar water known as “simple syrup” has been added. The tea must still be quite hot for the proper absorption of sugar to take place. Then, just as copper and tin become bronze, hot tea and sugar becomes “Sweet Tea.“ Continued steeping may be adjusted to personal taste.

Some family formulas are as closely guarded as Coca Cola, and only passed down by grandmothers. Written recipes do not exist, except in some mundane obligatory form in cook books.

The only controversy depends upon whether one belongs to the “pre-steeping” or the “post-steeping” schools. The precise point at which to combine the hot tea and sugar creates endless conversation, and has actually been the subject of scientific study. A slight nod was given to the “pre” school, but I remain a “post” advocate, as was my mother.

Freshly made sweet tea which is still slightly warm is the best. It is like the first press of juice through a wine press.

The tea is best when poured into a tall glass filled with crushed ice or ice cubes. It must, therefore, be of sufficient strength to not become overly diluted and cool enough to not melt all the ice. This takes exquisite balance and expertise in the making.

Secondary sweet tea - poured from the refrigerator later, is better than most cold drinks, but, unlike wine, it does not improve with age. Usually it’s gone by the next day, anyway.

Tea is naturally astringent and tannic, and the balance of just the right amount of sweetness is a perfect foil. The addition of fresh picked mint and lemon are like adding whipped cream and nuts to an ice-cream sundae. That’s about as good as it gets.

Sweet tea was a staple in the South even before ice became available. Some say it gave extra energy to farmers or field hands. Granulated sugar was unavailable or unknown but sugar cane or beet sugar were used extensively.

When The Tennessee Valley Authority created electricity for the rural South in the 1930s, ice, “ice boxes,” and soon, refrigerators became widely available. It is probably true that the availability of ice was more popular than electric lights for many folks. This resulted in the birth of “iced” tea. Iced sweet tea, of course.

If one has never experienced the real thing, perhaps consuming a poor imitation, it is understandable that one may not have a properly high opinion of true sweet tea. Grocery store imitations of Coca Cola come to mind - cheap wine or Robusta coffee.

Like good wine, sweet tea really comes into its own with a good food match. Almost all foods in the South are a good food match. Barbecued pork is at the apex of matches. Nothing quenches the thirst with more complete satisfaction when eating spicy foods than a large glass of iced sweet tea.

Oh, it should be noted that iced sweet tea is almost always served in out-sized containers, often real glass. This cuts down on the need to frequently pass the pitcher. This won’t be necessary in a restaurant, though. A glass nearing the half full mark sends out an automatic distress signal to the nearest waitress, who immediately pours a refill.

A plate of chopped barbecued pork, slowly smoked over hickory charcoal, crisp tangy cole slaw, roasted potatoes and a big ole “cathead” biscuit buttered and dripping with clover honey has been know to make grown men cry or propose marriage.

Anyone can make apple pie.

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