I grew up in Texas where iced tea is a staple. A pitcher brimming with ice and filled with the dark amber liquid was on the table for every lunch and dinner, or dinner and supper, depending if you lived in the city, or the country. That pitcher was the first thing fought over in those pre-air-conditioned days. The platter of fried chicken was secondary, and hardly noticed, until everyone had a chance at the sweating invitation of the pitcher to cool off.
Ever present with the pitcher of iced tea, were two other staples, a heaping bowl of sugar, and another of lemon slices, not split disks artistically draped over the lip of the glass, but quarter, or eighth slices big enough to squeeze into your tea and get some flavor.
One day, as a little feller, I was watching my mother make the tea for lunch. Water was boiling in a plain, old, beat up pan, not a fancy kettle, and Mama dropped in several tea bags. "What'cha doing?" I asked.
"Making iced-tea," she replied as she hustled about the kitchen to orchestrate getting the food hot and on the table at the same time as the tea would be cold, an art, to this day that I cannot duplicate.
"So, you boil it to make it hot?"
"Yes, that's how the tea gets into the water. It has to steep."
I'd worry about that word later. "Then you pour it into water and over ice to make it cold?"
"Yes," she answered with a slight questioning tone, no doubt wondering where my little boy mind was about to lead us.
"Then we put sugar in it to make it sweet…"
"…and then lemon to make it sour?"
"Yes?" This time, a full-blown question.
"Well, which can't make up its mind, the tea, or us?"
We had a good laugh over that for years. The story became a staple around the table like the tea, sugar, and lemon, were staples on it, especially if there was company.
My uncle James would come to visit, and would ask me, "Who's winning the war, hot or cold, sugar or lemon?" It never got old.
When we would go out to eat, it was the same. Iced tea was served, there was a bowl, then later, packets of sugar, and a dish of lemon. We were all expected to flavor the tea to our taste.
I remember being shocked to learn that iced tea was not a staple all over the world. What did those poor, under-developed areas of the country drink with their meals, water? Dad told the story of when he was in the Navy during WWII, of being somewhere up north and ordering iced tea with a meal. The wait staff had no idea what he was talking about, so he showed them.
He ordered hot tea, and a glass of ice water, which he partly drank while waiting for the tea to steep. When the tea was ready, Daddy poured it into the glass of ice water, stirred it, ordered up some lemon slices, sweetened, soured, and enjoyed.
That first glass did not go to him, but was shared around among the under privileged Yankees, and then it was an iced-tea fest as others at Daddy's table, and other tables watching, ordered, and tried the same.
Iced tea today has spread across America. We southerners having fulfilled our God given responsibility to teach the rest of the world the finer points of life. We may have lost the War of Northern Aggression, but we are conquering with the best weapon we ever had, one southern delight at a time.
It wasn't until I moved to the deep south, the Heart of Dixie, Lower Alabama, that I was offered pre-sweetened tea. I'd always done it myself and wondered at the arrogance of anyone knowing how I might want it flavored, but being willing to experience new things, I tried sweet tea.
To those not initiated to the ways of the south, as those Yankees in my Daddy's day, sweet tea can be a shock. It's more like drinking tea flavored syrup than sugar flavored tea. I felt like the odd-ball northerners of Dad's story trying iced-tea for the first time, as I was pouring water from another glass into my sweet-tea to get it to the point I could taste the tea over the sweet.
Until I moved here, I had never heard the term "sweet-tea", but it isn't said with a hyphen. It's more like one word, a new word, "sweeeteaa", emphasis being placed on the three vowel "sweeet", and the "teaa" drawn out into two, but often three, syllables.
"I'll have iced-tea to drink," I will say to the server.
To which I am asked, "Will that be 'sweeeteaa', or 'un'?" The "un" is referring to un-sweetened tea, but is said with a disgusted grunt, which, when contrasted to the drawn out "sweeeteaa", you can hear, if not feel, the disdain for any other answer than "sweet please."
To all you sweet-tea drinkers, I must apologize, but I just don't get it. No one has sweetened my tea since I was too small to do it myself, which growing up where I did, learning to walk usually didn't come until after you learned to sweeten your own tea. I blame it on generations of Texians who raised me to make choices, and I guess I'll have to be content with the insulting "un" as I order tea and flavor it to taste, but I like my tea the way I like it, and I can do it myself, thank you.
David Wilson Atwood is a local writer whose human-interest columns offer a unique perspective. He may be contacted, and his other works viewed at: www.starchasers.us, or email@example.com.