The Tea Divide

Let’s start here: I come from a family who sweetens tea to our individual tastes. For instance, my grandmother, Sarah Mary, took her iced tea with a teeny-tiny saccharin tablet—the only artificial sweetener available back then. At home, she stirred it in with a long monogrammed spoon. When dining out, she brought her own saccharin, as it was rare for those little tablets to be on offer. Dieting wasn’t a “thing” restaurateurs supported in the early ’60s.

 I did not think much about the option of iced tea arriving at the table presweetened until I was 53 and visiting Georgia for the first time. Up to that point, the farthest South I’d ever been was Baltimore, where I had family, and if tea came with the sugar preloaded, I never noticed. 

 When eating out in the days of my youth, if you weren’t packing a saccharin tablet, you sweetened your tea with one of those premeasured sugar packets that remain on restaurant tables today. Since I usually had a ginger ale or Shirley Temple, as a child, my only use for sugar packets was to take them out of their little wire holder and put them back in. It was a way to pass the time while I waited for my kid’s meal to arrive. (I know you haven’t asked, but I always got the turkey and stuffing with mashed potatoes and peas. The potatoes had a big scoop out of the center filled with brown gravy. That gravy crater was the height of elegant dining to my child self.)

 In Georgia, years and more years later, it was easy to notice the many little differences between life at home in Vermont and life on St. Simons Island. For starters, there was the drippy Spanish moss, along with the ubiquitous “y ’alls,” and “bless your heart” used as punctuation or parting salutation.

 While you might find a few y ’alls” in New England, you won’t ever be wished a “blessed day” by your grocery checkout person. Nor will you be waved off with a “bless your heart” by the stranger you’ve been chatting with in line. (Please note that “bless your heart” can hold shades of meaning including the opposite of blessing your heart.)

 But let’s return to food and start with iced tea. “Sweet or unsweet, honey?” That’s the question your waitress will ask. I suggest you head to Twin Oaks Barbecue in Brunswick to meet that question. It’s a place where people of all colors and stripes eat and agree that the food is just plain heavenly.

 Now, there is a chance that Southerners reading this missive are wishing I’d get to the point because none of this is news to them. To me, however, sweet tea was a revelation—and the revelation was that sweet as a descriptor doesn’t do justice to the sweetness in sweet tea. Super sweet? Way too sweet? I’m-going-into-a-diabetic-coma sweet? Have you ever had one of those glucose tests where you have to drink a whole cup of cola syrup? My first sip of sweet tea brought that experience to mind.

 Don’t get me wrong—this is a free country where we all get to drink whatever nonalcoholic drink we want, and to drink as much as we want, without having to put up with opinions about our beverage of choice. Please sip your sweet tea while I stick with a beverage us Northerners—especially New York City Northerners— are fond of: seltzer.

 Sweet tea may not be on my menu but there is plenty else I love when it comes to the Southern menu. I’ll have the pimento cheese with saltines, and the shrimp and grits and collard greens. Or maybe the barbecue or the fried oysters and battered fries. I’ll skip the fried gator tail (which is a tale for another day). But do please pass the bene seed cakes for dessert.