Diabetes In A Glass
In 1773, Bostonians made history by throwing chests of it into the harbour. Now, Americans drink 2.5 billion gallons of this stuff every year. Y'all, let's talk sweet tea.
Allison Glock wrote in Garden & Gun that “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.”
Although we think of it as quintessentially Southern, tea was introduced to the US – South Carolina, specifically – by French explorer Andrew Michaux in the 1700s, and wasn’t successfully grown for consumption in the US until 1888.
In 2003, a bill was proposed that would make it a legal requirement for all restaurants in Georgia to serve sweet tea. It may have been an April Fools’ Day joke, but the fact that a lot of people took it seriously speaks to how important the drink is in the South.
The invention of sweet tea is widely credited to Richard Blechynden, a travelling Brit who was essentially the hype man for Indian tea, at the 1904 World’s Fair. But, although he helped spread the word about iced tea, that’s not quite true.
In The Kentucky Housewife, published back in 1839, Lettice Bryan published a cold Tea Punch recipe that called for:
A pint and a half of very strong tea, pour it boiling hot on one pound and a quarter loaf of sugar, half a pint of rich, sweet cream, and a bottle of claret or champagne.
A bottle? Ok, now it’s a party, sis.
Sounds to me like Lettice Bryan was the original “two shots of vodka” woman:
Let’s take a second to address the elephant in the room: I’m British and my 10th (I think?) post on this project is about tea. A cliché, yes, but I haven’t always been a fan of the stuff.
It wasn’t until a decade or so ago, when a colleague brought me what might have been the best cup of tea I’ve ever had, that I fell in love with it. I’ve been chasing that milky, sugary dragon ever since, and I now drink it regularly.
Talk about living up to stereotypes – feel free to roast me in the comments.
As much as I love sweet tea, let’s not pretend it and the British cuppa have a whole lot in common – sweet iced tea often has a Brix level, a scale that measures sugar content per 100g of liquid, of 22°Bx. Twice that of Coca Cola.
There’s a reason that multiple Southerners have described this drink to me as “diabetes in a glass” with a tone in their voice that’s weirdly close to pride.
I’ve heard it said that Americans eat and drink like someone forgot to tell them they don’t have the best universal healthcare system in the world. Aside from Mountain Dew maybe, I can’t think of a better example of this than sweet tea.
A more family-friendly recipe for iced tea appeared in print in 1879, using green tea, in Marion Cabell Tyree’s Housekeeping in Old Virginia:
You’ll notice that it only calls for a couple of teaspoons per glass, or goblet rather (boujee), but perhaps it’s not surprising that modern incarnations are much sweeter than that. Frasier Crane once said that “if less is more, just imagine how much more more would be.” Everything’s bigger in
Like the ten gallon hat and the Ford F-150, iced tea that’s sweeter than syrup is another symbol of American excess. And I say that with love. Because I truly believe that most Brits who complain about Americans being “a bit much” are, even if they won’t admit it, a little envious of their self-assurance and boldness.
I’m as big a fan of Yorkshire Tea as anyone but, if the sun’s even threatening to peek from behind the clouds, I’d take a Bojangles employee handing me a sweet tea with a bombastic “have a great afternoon!” over it any day of the week.
Iced tea and its (distant) British cousin have one thing in common: ubiquity.
Sweet tea is drunk by both the reddest of rednecks and genteel ladies sitting on their porches, just like the British equivalent is drunk by builders – construction workers – and distinguished gentlemen (get out of my head, TikTok sound) alike.
Whether it comes in a styrofoam cup with ice or in fine china, tea is a unifier.
Brits love nothing more than complaining that they can’t get a good cup of tea when they’re on holiday. “Would you believe, the hotel room didn’t have a kettle! What they’re really saying there, and I’m including myself in this, is that actually, they’re a bit homesick for that little island they’re always complaining about.
Likewise, the sweet variety is a cultural touchpoint for Southerners both rich and poor, Black and white, Democrat and Republican. It’s one of those things that people with absolutely nothing else in common could sit and enjoy together.
If country songs by the likes of Darius Rucker and Colt Ford are to be believed, folks in the North have been known to poke fun at Southerners hoping to find a good glass of iced tea. But they really shouldn’t, because what those Southerners might actually be saying is “hey, I sure miss where I’m from right now.”
And that’s the tea.
Or maybe they’re just thirsty, idk…
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