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More Southern Food
May 8, 2011
An excerpt from An Irresistible History of Southern Food by Rick McDaniel.
Ask any Southerner to picture in their mind a lazy summer day, and chances are that vision will include a porch, a rocking chair and a glass of iced tea. So how did a drink made from a plant that grows on the other side the world become, as many have called it, the house wine of the South? Iced tea begins life as the leaves of a bushy evergreen shrub indigenous to Tibet and western China. There’s some controversy as to exactly when the Chinese started drinking tea, but it was so popular by the sixth century that merchants commissioned a book extolling the pleasures of drinking it.
Tea drinking spread to Europe in the sixteenth century, when the English began trading with China. The English began exporting tea and then switched to growing it themselves in their Asian colonies.
Despite attempts in the early 1800s to grow tea in South Carolina, the British continued to dominate the tea market after the American Revolution. In 1859, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company began selling tea at one-third the price of British tea and later grew into a chain of supermarkets under the name A&P.
One of the most enduring myths associated with iced tea is that it was “invented” at the 1904 World’s Fair. While this might have been the earliest commercial sale of iced tea, and definitely served to popularize black tea (instead of the green tea popular since colonial days), Southerners had been enjoying this cool and refreshing drink for at least a generation prior to the dawn of the twentieth century.
Although there were recipes such as Regent’s punch (essentially a spiked version of iced tea) dating back to colonial times, iced tea became an essential part of Southern life sometime around the mid-nineteenth century.
It’s been theorized that the birth of iced tea probably occurred in New Orleans sometime after the first commercial ice production began in 1868, but there are recipes for other iced drinks that predate commercially produced ice by at least three decades. The earliest mention of iced tea in print is a passage from Sea-Gift, a novel written by North Carolinian Edwin Wiley Fuller in 1873.
Mary Ann Bryan Mason, another North Carolinian, gave this advice about iced tea in 1875: “Three things it would be well to avoid in tea—tea of inferior quality, weak tea, and cold tea, unless persons desire iced tea—then it should be well iced. Tepid tea is nauseous, especially if weak.”
The earliest printed recipe for iced tea is found in Marion Cabell Tyree’s Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1877), so by at least the early 1870s, iced tea was a well-established part of Southern cuisine.
How to Make Southern Iced Tea
Start with a 4- to 6-quart nonreactive pot and fill it with three quarts of cold water. Put four to six regular (or three or four family-size) tea bags into the cold water, cover and bring to a boil, then immediately remove from the heat. After three or four minutes (depending on how strong you like your tea), remove the tea bags (don’t squeeze them) and pour the hot tea into a gallon pitcher. Add a small pinch of baking soda to counter any bitterness, and add sugar to taste—1 to 2 cups, depending on whether you like your tea sweet, seriously sweet or stand up and bark sweet. Add enough cold water to fill the pitcher, stir well and let the tea cool to room temperature before pouring; otherwise the hot tea will melt the ice in the glasses and the tea will be watery. Do not refrigerate until the tea is completely cool or it will become cloudy. To serve, fill a tall glass three-quarters full of ice. Quarter a lemon and squeeze it over the ice, then drop in the lemon and pour the tea over the ice.