I’m standing in a company-sponsored buffet line on lunch break during a workshop in Bombay. I’m in line with my Indian colleagues, perusing their cuisine. Each dish has a tiny placard rather unhelpfully identifying each dish. The names are completely unfamiliar. I see Chicken Tikka Masala, Teekah Mung, Kadai Chicken, and so on. Most descriptions seem to mention chicken and the primary spice. Many of these spices I’ve never heard of before. I ask my host what’s in the dish almost every time. He lists the ingredients and cautions me about the foods that will be too hot for my American palate. We come to a dish not getting much attention labeled Salt and Pepper Chicken. This makes me smile. Finally, something familiar. I point it out and tell everyone in range: “Back home we just call that chicken. Salt and pepper is used so much, we don’t even mention it.”
The same is true for Sweet Tea; back home we just call it tea, which has been true for as long as I can remember. All through my childhood, mom made tea for every evening meal. It was always fantastic and nobody ever tired of it. I sure didn’t. Nor did my two older brothers, or dad, I guess. Indeed, getting tired of the drink wasn’t really a thing. We were never offered any other beverage. Ever. No juice. No milk. No lemonade. Never water. We didn’t notice. Tea was simply what we drank with our supper. There was never any question, as far as I can recall.
I remember as a young child sitting on the kitchen counter, watching mom closely while she made the tea. This involved boiling, steeping, and pouring the still-hot tea into a large glass pitcher. And in an application of thermal dynamics I still don’t understand, she rested a large steel spoon in the pitcher to somehow mitigate the risk of the thing shattering from the heat as she made the transfer. She’d then add sugar, cold water and pour over ice just prior to serving. “Somebody c’mone and put ice in the glasses,” she’d call in her strong Georgia accent, drawing out the word ice into something like “ahs.” This meant that supper was just about to be served.
I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the family who routinely watched this production. I sure don’t recall either of my older brothers; Troy or Trey showing any interest in how the family beverage was prepared. And I doubt my younger siblings, Shannon and Jerry, watched or cared either. It wasn’t treated like a secret recipe, but that’s what it kind of turned out to be. To them, I guess Mom was a force of nature; providing sustenance, but not to be observed too closely or questioned.
We’re all grown now and pretty much all of us are running our own families in various cities across the US. Mom still makes the tea. We all make the tea. Perhaps it’s odd only to me that no branch of the family makes it the same way. One branch uses a huge amount of sugar. Another doesn’t steep it long enough. A third uses decaffeinated tea and isn’t so generous with the sugar. Mom doesn’t even make it the way she used to, preferring artificial sweetener these days, when she makes it at all. She now buys the premix at the store and I despair.
I’m now the only one who makes it the traditional way, and it’s called tea. I’ll use the moniker sweet tea only in mixed company, for clarity’s sake. But I’m cringing inside when I say anything but “tea.” I acknowledge that there is great variety in teas now, but my preference is for the original, the one I grew up with.
If you know your grocery history, then you know the introduction of Grey Poupon Mustard started the explosion of product variation at the store. The introduction – and acceptance – of a second kind of mustard made it possible, it opened the flood gates. Products turned into product lines. We no longer have grape, orange, and apple juice. We now have countless varieties and combinations of anything that’ll bear juice. The same has followed for anything from tater tots to vinegar. My sensibilities were formed during a simpler time, when there was simply mustard. If you come to my house for dinner, you’ll get tea. Plain tea. Sweetened.
I was in Bombay for two weeks this last trip, lunching at the improvised buffet line every work day. I sampled almost everything, taking small portions of the exotic Indian cuisine. My longing for something familiar, something traditional, plain, grew with each passing day. This is the recipe for the tea I grew up with, and I appreciate it even more when I return from an overseas trip.
Sorrells Sweet Tea
Bring one quart of cold water to a rolling boil. Add three bags of Lipton Black Tea, cover and turn off the heat, but don’t remove the pot from the eye. Steep for fifteen to twenty minutes. In a two-quart pitcher, add just under a half cup of sugar and a large steel spoon. Pour from the pot to the pitcher while stirring. Once the sugar is fully dissolved, top off the pitcher with cold water, about a quart. Serve over ice.
One variation I’ll allow: I now dissolve the sugar in the pot after steeping. I then pour from pot to pitcher while it already has a half-quart of cold water in it, eliminating the need for the steel spoon and any worry of breakage from the heat.
Scot Sorrells 2017