Sweet tea is the house wine of the South
By By Robert St. John / food columnist
April 2, 2003
Robert St. John is the executive chef/owner of the Purple Parrot Caf and Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg and Meridian, www.nsrg.com. If you have any questions or comments, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (601) 264-0672.
When asking for iced tea in a restaurant, Southerners say "tea please." We mean sweet tea. The "sweet" is always implied. If we want unsweetened tea, we ask for it.
Sweet tea is steeped in tradition. It's a "Southern thing." My rule for finding restaurants that serve sweet tea is easy: If the state doesn't have a college in the Southeastern Football Conference, you will have a hard time finding sweet tea (The two exceptions being East Texas and parts of North Carolina).
States with two schools in the Southeastern ConferenceMississippi, Alabama and Tennesseemake the best sweet tea.
Tea gets sweeter as you travel deeper into the South. That rule works for women, too.
Our restaurants serve more than 200 gallons of iced tea a week, three-quarters of which is sweetened. Some Southern restaurants don't serve sweetened tea.
I was once a waiter at a restaurant that didn't serve sweet tea. There was a daily insurrection. Folks are particular about their iced tea. If it doesn't come pre-sweetened, they will forgo tea altogether and order a Coke. Or worse, ice water.
I don't order tea in Chinese restaurants. They might do a good job with hot tea, but I have never had a memorable glass of iced tea in a Chinese restaurant.
Some restaurants, in an effort to save money, try to save their tea overnight. Any restaurant worth its tea leaves will always dump unused tea down the drain and start fresh the next day.
Some people drink instant iced tea. I have never tasted an instant tea that was any good. It always tastes like tea-flavored Kool-Aid. How hard can it be to boil water and steep a few bags? There are many boutique teas that come in various-shaped bottles at local grocery stores and convenience stores, I don't like them either.
I hate sun tea. It is a scam. I imagine sun tea drinkers are also dog beaters and jaywalkers. Sun tea is weak. In the 1970s, my mother (who is not a dog beater) bought a glass gallon jar with the words "Sun Tea" printed on the outside. There was nothing unique or unusual about this glass-gallon container. Set it in the sun, watch it brew. Wow!
The same guy who invented the pet rock invented the sun tea jar. He was definitely a dog beater.
Some folks add a pinch of baking soda to their tea while it is steeping. They claim this removes the bitterness and makes the color richer. I say buy a good-quality tea and you won't have to worry about bitterness. Steep it long enough and you won't have to worry about color.
My grandmother put a sprig mint in her tea. Once, while serving lunch to a man who was painting her house, the painter said, "Mrs. St. John, there is a leaf in my tea!"
Not wanting to embarrass him, and in her usual, gracious manner, she replied, "Oh, I am sorry, if you don't like it, you may remove it."
My grandmother made great tea. She always kept iced tea in washed-out mayonnaise jars in her refrigerator. She learned how to make her version of iced tea from an English gentleman.
My uncle, her son, came home from Harvard for a weekend visit. He brought his roommate, an English fellow named Roger P. R. Bennett. Bennett gave my grandmother the secret to making great tea. She claimed that the Brits knew how to make tea better than anyone.
I remember the day my grandmother told me the ancient British secret to her tea-making process, but I don't remember the actual secret. It wasn't anything extraordinary, just a little twist in the procedure. Like many other things she showed me in the kitchen, I didn't write it down. Now I am old and forgetful and I am drinking lesser tea for it.
My favorite iced tea is served at the Windsor Court hotel in New Orleans. At the Windsor Court, they do not serve sweet tea. However, they serve simple syrup along with their iced tea. Windsor Court is a British-inspired hotel. Maybe they know Roger P.R. Bennett's secret. I will ask.
The moral of the column is don't drink tea outside of the Southeastern Conference, never order iced tea in a Chinese restaurant, don't beat your dog for fear that someone will call you a sun tea drinker and whenever you are in the kitchen cooking with your grandmother, take notes.
Procedure: Boil water, steep tea, add sugar until the spoon stands up. Ice and drink.