In 2006, McDonald's ventured where no national fast-food chain based outside of the South had dared to tread: it put its own version of sweet tea on the menus of its restaurants inside the South. Encouraged by the regional sales of its "Mickey D's Sweet Tea,” the franchise started selling the brew in Yankee territory all across the country. Around the same time, several Southern-based chains—Chick-fil-A (Atlanta, GA), Cracker Barrel (Lebanon, TN), Jim 'n' Nick's Community Bar-B-Q (Birmingham, AL), and McAlister's Deli (Oxford, MS)—followed suit, capitalizing on the growing, national thirst for sweet tea. The groundswell of interest was epitomized by McAlister's now seven-year-old "Free Tea Day," an event hosted every July where the chain gives away an estimated 350,000 free cups of sweet tea. Yet even with all of that sweet tea sloshing around nationwide, I wonder if people outside of the South really understand that sweet tea is not just another sugary drink on a value menu; sweet tea is integral to the South's cuisine, culture, and soul.
Before deciding if what McDonald's has wrought is a cause for celebration or concern, it helps to understand what sweet tea is. Traditionally, sweet tea is made by pre-sweetening the tea leaves (an orange pekoe blend is preferred) and water mixture while it is still hot. Sweet tea purists argue that any deviation from this process in terms of adding sugar or ice produces "sweetened tea," not sweet tea. However, contemporary sweet-tea recipes are less rigid, so as long as the final product tastes sufficiently sweet. There's no hard-and-fast rule about adding lemon, but it is usually served on the side; and if you're making sweet tea at home, Luzianne brand tea is the choice southerners prefer.
Besides mastering the mechanics of making sweet tea, one should be mindful that sweet tea carries a certain aesthetic. Michael Twitty, author of the forthcoming book The Cooking Gene, grew up making sweet tea every day for dinner under the tutelage of his Alabama-born grandmother. The tea flavor should be strong, and the tea's color should be a "reddish, brown glow," he says. Any sweet tea with a darker color might as well be called coffee, and any tea with a lighter color is probably just sugar water. Twitty concludes that, unfortunately, most of the sweet tea served outside of the South fails to strike the proper balance, and veers towards either extreme.
When sweet tea is made the right way, though, it carries deep meaning for people of the South. Sure, other beverages strongly identify as southern, but they either have a specific birthplace (Kentucky and bourbon), or their national popularity means that many no longer think of them as distinctly of the South (Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola). In John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg's Holy Smoke: The Big book of North Carolina Barbecue, food historian John T. Edge points out that for southerners, sweet tea is "a kind of culinary-cultural Global Positioning System, an indicator of where we are and, yes, who we are." Southern cookbook author and North Carolina native Sheri Castle describes sweet tea as "a rite of passage. Being offered a glass of sweet tea instead of milk is how Southern children know that they're growing up." Houston Chronicle food writer Allison Glock wrote in Garden & Gun that sweet tea "isn't a drink, really. It's culture in a glass. Like Guinness in Ireland. Or ouzo in Greece."
Southerners didn't invent sweet tea, but they certainly recognized a good thing. Tea originated in Asia, with tea drinking spreading eastward; sugary renditions of hot tea have long been popular in Great Britain, India, and Senegal. The southern genius was to add ice to this elixir. In fact, the earliest known recipe in the U.S. for a sweetened, iced tea was printed in the Housekeeping in Old Virginia cookbook by Marion Cabell Tyree (1879). Sweet tea goes by many names in the South—it is interchangeably called ice tea, iced tea, sweet tea, or simply tea. That's why when Dolly Parton's character Truvy in the iconic southern movie Steel Magnolias called iced tea, "the house wine of the South," southerners knew she meant sweet tea. Just to underscore how serious southerners can get about sweet tea, in 2003, the Georgia State Legislature (albeit jokingly) considered criminalizing the act of serving unsweetened tea at any restaurant operating within its border.
Though sweet tea is a ritual of the South, it is not omnipresent. Lolis Eric Elie, New Orleans native and author of Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans, says, "In New Orleans, sweet tea is not the marker of southern culture that it is in other places." In April 2016, Texas Monthly Magazine pondered the question of whether or not there is a "Sweet Tea Line," and if Texas falls within that territory. After a vigorous online debate by its readers, the magazine concluded that sweet tea was most prevalent in East Texas—the area of the state with the strongest southern cultural influence.
Southerners are fiercely loyal about their sweet tea, which is compounded by the regional varieties among states. Twitty remembers that when his grandmother from Virginia made sweet tea, she always included mint. Georgia native Nicole Taylor, author of UpSouth Cookbook, recalls her mother adding a pinch of baking soda, which is supposed to mollify the bitterness of strongly-brewed tea. Fred Thompson, an iced-tea authority and North Carolinian, argues that sweet tea is a useful foil for vinegary barbecue sauces. Thus, the more vinegary the restaurant's barbecue sauce is in places like North Carolina, the sweeter the tea. As the theory goes, a place like Memphis—which pairs its barbecue with a sweeter sauce—would have a milder sweet tea.
The flexibility in its formula and ingredients—as well as its DIY assembly and lack of alcohol—made sweet tea the South's ultimate drink. As Thompson wrote in an essay for Cornbread Nation 5, sweet tea "blends with and complements so many Southern favorites. But iced sweet tea is also the sign of hospitality. It transcends race, religion, and politics because it truly welcomes all to the table and welcomes home those who have wandered to far-flung places." Thompson's observation that sweet tea transcends religion is the part of sweet tea history that really drips with irony.
Before sweet tea became hugely popular, southerners were gulping a lot of "tea punch." As cocktail historian David Wondrich notes, punches that replaced water for tea and an astonishing amount of alcohol date back to the 1700s. Because of tea's astringency, tea punch recipes are loaded up with staggering amounts of sugar. Take for example this early recipe for tea punch that was printed in The Kentucky Housewife by Mrs. Lettice Bryan (1839):
Make a pint and a half of very strong tea in the usual manner; strain it, and pour it boiling on one pound and a quarter of loaf sugar. Add half a pint of rich sweet cream, and then stir in gradually a bottle of claret or of champaign (sic). You may heat it to the boiling point, and serve it so, or you may send it round entirely cold, in glass cups.
The addition of cream is distinctive here; later tea punch recipes usually include citrus fruit. Remove the alcohol, cream, and fruit, and you've got sweet tea. It's quite possible that sweet tea was a surrender to the temperance movement's tidal wave of success at the state and local level in the South during the 1800s—decades before Prohibition became national law. Believe it or not, "dry" counties where alcohol sales are prohibited still exist in the South. Tea punches were made for social occasions, but as a nonalcoholic alternative, sweet tea became popular beverage at social gatherings, in restaurants, and in homes.
Don't think for a moment, though, that sweet tea completely divorced itself from its alcoholic past. In 2008, inspired by college drinking culture in the South and the flavored-booze boom, Firefly Distillery decided that sweet tea needed to pack more of a punch, so it added vodka. Firefly Distillery is based on Wadmalaw Island, which also happens to be the location of the only operational tea farm in North America. Sweet-tea vodka was an instant hit, and these days sweet tea is regularly mixed with bourbon, gin, and rum.
Now that sweet tea is peddled by barkeeps and restaurant waitstaff across the country, has sweet tea lost its power as a symbol of southern culture? Should we now think of it as something that is just "American?" Matt Lee, a food expert and star of Southern Uncovered with the Lee Bros, doesn't do much hand-wringing over such questions. He suggests that sweet tea's widespread availability may lead it towards the same fate as Coca-Cola: "Coke has lost its southernness, but not in the South." He then went into full sweet-tea booster mode: "This is part of the expansion of the empire of southern food and southern culture. This is something to celebrate. Sweet tea is good flavor, so why should we keep it to ourselves?"
Fred Thompson's benediction in Cornbread Nation may be the only reasonable response to that question: "Sweet tea—your mother's sweet tea—means you are home."