Southern Sweet Iced Tea
Often restaurants in the South now serve their sweet iced tea in mason jars… love it! The new glass of the South! Did you know that June is “National Iced Sweet Tea Month”? Who knew it had its own month… but I guess it’s the kickoff of summer drink! Although down South, it’s an everyday drink!
Anytime you hear someone mention sweet iced tea…. you think of the South… because that is where the best sweet tea is found! Sweetened Iced Tea is as Southern a drink as you can find… and on a hot day there is nothing better. Southerner’s don’t make iced tea from a can or with one of those sun- tea jars… they make the real thing… from scratch!
My first job at age 16 was as a waitress… starting on a Friday night… and knowing nothing! One of my first customers – a Northern couple asked for tea with their meal. When I set down two glasses of sweet tea on their table, they immediately told me I’d brought them the wrong drink. I quickly learned “hot tea” was a drink…. who knew there was actually another type of tea. All we drink in the South is sweetened iced tea… that’s all I knew! I didn’t remain a waitress for too long – definitely wasn’t my cup of tea… Ha!
I brought home this glass pot from mama’s one year, and it has been my go-to for making a brew of tea using mama’s explicit directions of using tea bags… and always removing the paper tags before adding them to the water.
When I first moved to Connecticut, sweet tea was absolutely “nowhere” to be found… and not even heard of. They might be willing to bring you a glass of unsweetened tea… but all Southerners know… you can’t sweeten that tea!
When the southern style restaurant, Cracker Barrel, opened up in Connecticut several years ago… that was the very first of sweetened ice tea being offered on a menu here. It was also the first finding of southern foods like turnip greens, fried okra and fried chicken in a northern restaurant. While it wasn’t the same as any you’d find on a southern menu… it was passable; I actually have always thought their turnip greens were very good! It quickly became my go-to restaurant for my southern food fix!
I grew up on sweet tea at every meal… can’t remember ever drinking milk at a meal other than breakfast. Never would you open a southern refrigerator and not find a pitcher of sweet tea!
My mother made sweet tea using just plain tea bags, but she originally used one of those stainless tea balls that held loose tea. By the time I began paying attention, well almost paying attention… she had begun making it easier on herself and using Luzianne Tea Bags. She had a certain small pan, that always sat on the stove… just waiting to brew up a condensed brew of tea to pour into waiting room-temperature water… with sugar already stirred in. It was a no-spoken rule that your tea brew was poured into already sweetened water!
Have you ever tried to sweeten cold iced tea… well it just doesn’t happen!
Just plain granulated sugar was the only thing ever used years ago in sweetening tea, but people today often add other sweeteners… for one reason or another… but true sweet tea is strictly only made with plain sugar! Later in life when saccharin appeared on the grocery shelves… mama began mixing her sweet tea with half saccharin and half sugar… not sure why she was trying to save calories as she didn’t really need to. By the time she stopped using saccharin… she had pretty much stopped making her own ice tea and even cooking. Last time I was there I spotted an old bottle of saccharin sitting up on a shelf… it reminded me of those days… of her insisting that it tasted the same. While it didn’t really taste the same to me… but I didn’t argue the point as I could always get my fill of “real” sweetened tea when we went out to eat.
I wrote this “Tea” recipe years ago when I made the family cookbook… Cooking Family Memories
When I return home to my Southern roots, there are always several things like fried okra, creamed-style corn, boiled peanuts and always “sweet iced tea” that I crave! Funny, how just being in an area will make you crave different foods.
While I have no memories of my grandmother McKinley’s sweet tea making… mama says… “My mother never liked sweet tea and never made it except for Sunday dinners. She made her tea syrup with a tea ball and loose tea… never used bags, and always added a pinch of baking soda. Why I don’t really know… I think it was said that it cut the bitter taste of tea, but I continued to also because mama had. What I liked, as a kid, was when daddy brought home the big block of ice for tea… I’d beg for a few chips before he stored it away for dinner. When I was young, we had no ice box… that block of ice was stored in a burlap bag… under a pile of sawdust. I can’t explain it, but it kept that ice from melting away. Sometimes he’d put mama’s ice tea in a jug and lower it by rope… down in the well. We had a well house just outside the back porch and it was where he’d store foods to keep cold; that well water was extremely cold. I could never understand why my mother didn’t like tea… and in her not liking it… it was a real treat on Sunday afternoons!”
Drinking sweet tea without chipped ice is a “no-no” in the South! Sweet tea just doesn’t taste right unless it is chilled with ice… lukewarm tea is horrible.
My mother has always talked about those Sunday family dinners.. how many family members came… “to put their feet under her mother’s table.” I always laugh when she says that line… and she still says it today, but it’s, “if I could have just one wish, it would be to put my feet under my mother’s table and have some of her cooking and a slice of her blackberry pie… the best I’ve ever eaten.” I think we all have that wish at one time or another!
Sunday dinner at grandmamma McKinley’s was not just about the sweet tea, it was also about the food… the fried chicken or pork chops; no beef was served as granddaddy had no beef cows… he didn’t like beef; he raised chickens and hogs for food. Grandmama’s dining room table would be filled with bowls of vegetables like black-eyed peas, green beans, fried okra, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and always my favorite… cream-style corn. Mama said she would scrape the corn milk from the cob… leaving it dry as a bone! It’s a lot of work to make cream corn… but it’s so good! I remember filling a biscuit with it and making that a meal! And let’s not forget grandmamma’s homemade biscuits… mama said they were the best!
When mama was a young girl and all the family came, the children had to sit on the back stoop… waiting to eat after the adults! She often sat and worried if her favorite piece of chicken or a biscuit would be left for her. One Sunday, she snuck in the kitchen before the adults came to the table and hid a chicken breast and a biscuit up in the cabinet… her daddy gave her a switching when he found out, but she said it was worth it… as she got her chicken and biscuit that day!
A couple of tea balls I brought from mama’s house… they were used to hold the loose tea before people began using tea bags.
Luzianne… the tea bags of the South!
Grandmama Bryan kept a pitcher of sweet tea in her refrigerator, and always on her table… granddaddy loved his sweet tea! I remember many Sunday dinners at their house… eating dinner on the table out on their screen enclosed back porch. They ate every meal out there… weather permitting. My place was always next to granddaddy… and whatever he ate, I ate! He liked adding a lemon wedge to his tea… and I followed suit. We never had lemon in our house, so that was a treat and a novelty to me. I’ll always ask for lemon today for my tea… makes me think of granddaddy. I remember how he also had certain cutlery he only used… nothing like having favorite forks and knives! Hubby laughs at me today, as I’ll be fiddling through the fork area in the cutlery drawer… for a specific fork I like. In years past… my kids seemed to have emptied their plates of food… along with their forks into the trash pail, as I now only have mismatched forks… with only a few I like to use. Hubby doesn’t seem to like the same ones I do… so we never clash over the last fork!
Vintage Luzianne coffee/tea sign
Cousin Paulette (Bryan-Huffman) remembers: “Grandmama Bryan only made what she called “black tea”, and she added a pinch of baking soda also, I think. Your daddy got it for her at the commissary at the Warner Robins AFB… it was loose tea and very strong; she wouldn’t use any store bought tea…said it was too weak. I use Luzianne tea bags… it’s the best in my opinion,, but I don’t think it’s black tea.“
Cousin Cindy (Bryan-Moore) remembers: “Mama and Othermama made tea with loose tea (I’ve always used tea bags). They would steep it for a while after boiling it on the stove, and both used a gallon sized heavy jug, maybe ceramic, that they made it in. Mama always used sugar, but in her later years Othermama put saccharine in hers (no idea why, she was not dieting, she was a little bitty thing) and none of us liked it. All our kids and grands drink tea, that’s all they know. They didn’t get soft drinks when they were young and still order tea at restaurants. We drank it sitting out on the porch at Othermama’s house in Union Point. Her mill house had a tiny front enclosed front porch, but that’s where we all sat. She had a swing that faced sideways, not toward the street… and three rocking chairs. You couldn’t walk between them, but we made do! We drank tea at all our gatherings… sometimes lemonade too, but always homemade; none of us ever put lemon in our tea.”
I couldn’t resist brewing a pitcher of sweet tea!
From the many cooking shows on TV today promoting foods and drinks of the South, more and more Northerners drink iced tea… but I’ve yet to find anyone who makes their own… it’s bought in the grocery stores. When the “sun tea” jar was advertised, I think a few might have tried that as a novelty, but that was an all-day thing… it didn’t last long. Sweet tea is sold on the shelves in Yankee supermarkets now! Have I bought it… Yes… but is it the same as what is sold in the South… NO!
When I asked members of the Greene County History Facebook group… many offered their remembrances of their mother or grandmother making sweet tea… I’ve posted a few below. It seems our Southern tea was pretty much made the same by all!
- Todd: My granny boiled the sugar in the pot on the stove with it. But I will say I grew up on Lipton and switched to Luzanne. It was like the commercial. Lol. Best tea I ever had and I’ve been missing it my whole life.
- James: Just know that It was Always there on the kitchen counter, made Fresh every day!
- Susan: Mama only used Lipton family size tea bags… Nothing else would do. Boil a quart of water, add two family sized Lipton tea bags, turn the water off and let it steep. Prepare your tea pitcher, put 1 cup of sugar in the picture, add the hot tea. Heaven forbid if you dropped the tea bags in the pitcher. Add water to the tea bags that are still in the boiler and pour that into the picture. Make it before the meal so that it’s cool and won’t be watered down by the ice.
- Linda: Pinch of soda was always added to make the tea stronger and not get cloudy. Sugar was added to water in gallon jug and then hot tea was added. A long butcher knife was used to stir it up. An occasional tea leaf ended up in that last glass of tea!
- Bonnie: We used American Ace loose tea when I was little. Mama would bring her water to a boil and pour over the tea in a little boiler, then she would put a pinch of baking soda in so it wouldn’t be cloudy. Let it set several hours… then pour through a strainer, then sweeten it, and Boy did she like her sugar!
- Andrea: I don’t remember how my grandparents made it but I do remember it was always in a glass gallon jar (like the big pickle jars but was probably from pickled pig feet or pickled eggs. It was terrifying as a child to carry it to and from the fridge to table. Lol! It did slide out of my hands at least once.
- Lynn: Our glass jar that held sweet tea was from a gallon of stew!
- Sue: My mama used loose leaf tea, boiled till the water darkened, added a pinch of soda to keep it from boiling over, which cut the acidic bitterness… then turned it off and let it sit for a few minutes. Then she strained it through a regular mesh strainer. Usually it was a gallon pitcher that she made it in, and she added 1 – 1/4 cups of sugar… I think she used Luzianne tea… and they drank Luzianne coffee too, made in the percolator.
- Joan: My mother made a blue pitcher full of very sweet tea every day, None of this bottled stuff that sits on the shelf for months. If it was left over, it was poured out. It was so sweet Daddy said it could probably walk off on its own.
- Leigh: My grandma put tea bags and water in a recycled pickle jar and set it in the sun on hot summer days. After a few hours, you removed the tea bags and added sugar… stirred it all up, then added ice and a sprig of mint… it grew right outside the back door. Yummy! Great memories!
- Randy: In 1954 we lived on the Eatonton Hwy… No TV, but had radio! American Ace made coffee too! I was about 5 years old and remember the ad playing on the radio (my dad’s name was Elmer) the add ran all the time! Can’t sing it on here but I can type it! “Elmer….. don’t forget the American Ace coffeeeee!” I’m 70 and I can still sing it!
Thanks for writing about your memories on our simple Southern tradition of brewing and enjoying a glass of “sweet iced tea”!
A genuine glass of sweet tea is always what I first crave when I go home… and that’s where it tastes the best! The sweeter… The better! Let me hear what your favorite sweet tea is!
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