Sweetest Tea

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett
I am not, in the fullest sense, a Southerner. Born and raised in Raleigh, I have always considered myself Southern, but I was often irritatingly reminded that that wasn’t enough by older women who pointedly asked where I was from, noting that I didn’t sound very Southern. With a mother from Connecticut and a Nebraskan father, I was, apparently, very hard to pigeonhole.
And I guess it’s true that when it comes to food, I don’t make a wholly convincing Southerner. I adore most Southern food, but I’m afraid chitlins will never find available space at my table, and Southern sweets are often too sugary for me.

But the sweeter the better, I say, when it comes to my tea. When I go to what should be a truly Southern restaurant and find I have to specify “sweet” with my drink order, I begin to despair that we’re losing whatever regional identity we have left. On a trip through Southport a year ago, my husband and I were especially struck by this at a waterfront spot we ate at that had apparently given up, offering just unsweetened tea and those nasty fake-sugar packets. It simply didn’t go with my Calabash seafood.
Now, there’s just no excuse for that. If a restaurant doesn’t want to bother making two kinds of tea, it can at least offer some sugar syrup to make that unsweet stuff palatable.
First, though, those restaurants need to figure out how to make a decent glass. Sugar can cover up at least some of the sins of tea-making, but in a glass of unsweetened tea, the flaws are all too noticeable. Usually, the worst sin is bitter tea, and I speak here, unfortunately, from experience.
I have to admit that while I’ve always loved sweet tea, I didn’t make it before I met my husband, who considers himself the true Southerner in our house. Then, for years, I tried periodically to make it to his taste, and just could never get it quite right. Sometimes it was too weak, but usually it was just too bitter, just a little off.
When I finally got serious about my tea, I fairly quickly figured out how to do it right: lots of tea bags, not too much time.
You can get all high-falutin’ with your tea, arguing for top-quality loose tea only, but then you’ve lost the spirit of the simple, frosty-wet glass you want to enjoy every day on the front porch of your nostalgic dreams. (I will use loose tea if I want to add a bit of flavor from either of two of my favorite hot teas — blackcurrant and vanilla. Both make great additions to a basic pitcher of tea.)
Here’s my simple formula for a gallon of tea: 9 bags, 9 minutes. I strip off the tags on the tea bags (I use decaf) and tie the strings together, to make them easier to fish out of the pot. From here, you have a choice: You can bring an entire gallon (16 cups) of water to a boil with 1 1/4 cups to 1 3/4 cups of granulated sugar, or you can make the process quicker by bringing just 8 cups to a boil with the sugar. As soon as it reaches a boil — don’t delay! — pull it off the heat, throw in the bags, stir a few times, and put the lid on. Nine minutes later, fish out the bags and, if you have time, let the tea cool before chilling it.
That cooling time may help keep your tea from turning cloudy, though after reading endless tips for avoiding cloudiness, I think no one really has a clue how to prevent this. Regardless, I often don’t have the patience to wait. Instead, using the 8-cup method, I add ice cubes to the tea to fill up a gallon pitcher and take a long, cool drink (otherwise, just add 8 more cups of cold water).
Many tea recipes suggest adding a pinch of baking soda to reduce the tongue-puckering feel of the tannins; I don’t think this is necessary unless you oversteep the tea.
And if you don’t want tea so sweet it makes your teeth ache? Simply make the tea as above but without the sugar, and separately, make a sugar syrup for your guests. Just bring two parts sugar to one part water to a boil (1 1/2 cups sugar to 3/4 cup water is a good ratio for a gallon of tea) and boil for 1 minute. Cool and keep chilled.
Should you ever tire of plain iced tea, herbs can bring some gentle new flavors to your palate. Steep 2 or 3 teaspoons of rosemary, lemon verbena, or, of course, mint leaves in with the tea, possibly adding a dash of lavender. Be sure to strain them out as soon as you remove the tea bags to keep the flavor from getting too strong. You can also flavor the sugar syrup with herbs, letting them steep for at least 10 minutes in the syrup before straining.
And if, instead of tiring of tea, you just want more, you can make it be its own course. Tea sorbet can be mildly sweet for a fancy between-courses palate cleanser, or significantly sweet for a light dessert — perfect with a glass of tea on your ultra-Southern front porch swing.
Recipe: Tea Sorbet
First published in the Independent Weekly, May 25, 2005

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