Friday, January 13, 2006

The great tea debate

Nicole and I are great lovers of tea. This plant, native to the Himalayas and China, yields some magical power over those who partake of it in drink-they can’t ever get enough. My grandmother, a British subject by birth, always took tea three times a day and made sure to have tea every day at four. She grew up in Newfoundland when it was still a colony of the Crown, and the custom there in her day was to take your tea with Carnation evaporated milk. I take my hot tea with half and half most of the time…and no, I don’t drink Lipton-especially hot. I would rather drink horse pee than Lipton hot. We drink real tea in our home.

Iced tea is the preferred way to drink tea in the South-with good reason. The climate is too hot for tea about six months of the year. In the summer months, drinking tea in the prescribed manner would mean that, in the days before air conditioning, you might dramatically increase your chances of a heat stroke.

Like most good things in America, iced tea was invented in the South. (The vast majority of our collective culture was either invented or perfected in the South.) In Louisiana they claim they are the inventors of the beverage, and that it happened around the turn of the last century. This has never been proven, and I don’t believe this myself, because the French and Spanish (the biggest influences on Louisiana culture) were and are not big tea drinkers. The English, Irish, Scots, Germans, and Scandinavians are all bigger tea drinkers than the French and Spanish, and the English, Scots, and Irish are all tea-drinking cultures.

Certainly tea drinking spread to all parts of the South, but I have always believed iced tea was probably invented in the home of some low-country planter, probably in South Carolina or Georgia, and probably in the late 18th or early 19th Century. I imagine that one day someone in the house was taking supper at around 4 or a little later, and they figured that it was too hot for tea, so they sweetened some and put it on ice-and the custom stuck.

One of the great debates in the South, unknown to outsiders, is how sweet the tea should be. In South Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana they make iced tea so sweet that in some quarters it ceases to be tea and becomes brown syrup instead. With due respect to our Deep South brethren, I have come to prefer the Eastern Kentucky/East and Middle Tennessee/North Carolina way of making iced tea: Still plenty sweet, but you can actually taste tea in all that sugar.

For iced tea, I prefer loose tea leaves to tea bags…if you can’t find loose tea, Luzianne is probably the next best thing.


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