Sweet Tea: A Love Story
Why we're all addicted to "hillbilly heroin"
My mother's sweet tea was not the best. Perhaps this is because she was from West Virginia, a place where people drink sweet tea with some ambivalence. Or maybe because in Jacksonville, Florida, where I was raised, delicious sweet tea could be found for $1.99 at the local supermarket in sweaty gallon jugs with nothing but the word sweet and the date stamped on the plastic.
She still made sweet tea, of course, being a Southern woman of whom having iced tea on hand is expected. But instead of sugar, my mother used Sweet'N Low, which is kind of like making chocolate cake with dirt. She insisted no one could tell the difference: "They're both sweet."
For most of my youth, any sweet tea I consumed came from fast-food restaurants, usually those specializing in fried chicken or ribs. Soda was not allowed in our bodies or even our house—except for Tab, for Mother, until they figured out the chemical that made Tab sweet also made rats insane. Then, all soft drinks were verboten. Sweet tea, however, was fine, even though the health benefits of drinking sweet tea are akin to those of drinking icing.
My father, a doctor, explained to me that sweet tea is the devil's brew, blood-sugar-wise. A glass of sweet tea is around 22 percent sugar, twice that of a can of cola. Add to that the ubiquitous free refills one is accustomed to getting with sweet tea, and you're looking at enough sugar to choke Augustus Gloop.
When you drink sweet tea, your body starts to pump out insulin like water from a fire hose. Then, you have the caffeine. Which stimulates your adrenaline. Which confuses your metabolism. And keeps you from feeling sated, as one normally would after swallowing that much sweetness. Only a select few can eat seven pieces of cheesecake at a sitting, for example. But nearly everyone I know nods and says, "Just one more" when the lunch lady comes around toting the clear pitcher with the rubber band snapped around the handle. Say what you will, but sweet tea is the real hillbilly heroin.
To say Southerners drink sweet tea like water is both true and not. True because the beverage is served at every meal, and all times and venues in between—at church and at strip clubs, at preschool and in nursing homes. Not true because unlike water or wine or even Coca-Cola, sweet tea means something. It is a tell, a tradition. Sweet tea isn't a drink, really. It's culture in a glass. Like Guinness in Ireland. Or ouzo in Greece.
(When I was stuck in New York for a stint, a bout of homesickness led me to get the words sweet tea tattooed on my left arm. I could think of nothing else that so perfectly encapsulated the South of my pining. Now that I have moved home, it serves less as a touchstone and more as a drink order.)
Theories abound: Southerners prefer sweet tea because back in the day we used sugar as a preservative and our palates grew to crave the taste. Southerners like sweet tea because it is served ice cold and it is hot as biscuits down here. Southerners like sweet tea because we are largely descended from Celts and Brits, making a yearning for tea a genetic imperative. Southerners like sweet tea because Southerners are poor and tea is cheap. (Cheaper than beer anyway.) Southerners like sweet tea because it is nonalcoholic but it still gives you a hearty, if somewhat diabolical, buzz.
No matter the source, our affection for sweet tea characteristically reaches religious fervor. Ask any Southerner where the best sweet tea is served, and he or she will have an opinion. I once knew a man who would drive forty-five minutes to a south Georgia Chick-fil-A because it had what he deemed the tea of the gods. This is not the sort of devotion one finds with other beverages, even coffee. Coffee is an addiction. Sweet tea is an obsession.
We are similarly evangelical about how best to prepare sweet tea. The basic recipe is undemanding. You brew a handful of bags of Lipton or Luzianne or whatever pekoe you prefer, pour the hot tea over a mound of sugar or simple syrup, add water to dilute to taste, stir, and serve over ice, with or without lemon. The amount of sugar is up to the maker, but generally runs somewhere between cotton candy sweet and sweet enough to liquefy your teeth.