Foodways: Sweet Tea

Thought by many to be an innately Southern beverage, sweet tea’s tale may surprise you.

In the South, Sweet Tea isn’t reserved for Sunday suppers of fried chicken and collards; it’s served everywhere—weddings, funerals, bars, baby showers, everywhere. But what if we told you that this iconic front porch sipper wasn’t always a Southern tradition?

It’s believed that tea, the concept of steeping leaves in boiling water, was invented by a Chinese emperor in about 2800 BC. Tea made its way to the New World in 1605 when colonists carried it to the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam (present day New York), but it wasn’t until the late 1700s that actual tea plants arrived in South Carolina’s Lowcountry thanks to a French botanist named André Michaux.

While it was traditionally enjoyed hot, recipes for iced tea punches began appearing in cookbooks up North and typically consisted of chilled green tea spiked with some kind of liquor. For years, sweet iced tea was a sign of wealth. Sugar was expensive and ice was hard to come by. Northerners turned to chipping large hunks of ice from frozen lakes and ponds and insulating the pieces to survive into warmer seasons. By the beginning of the 19th century, they were also shipping ice down South where, during the sultry heat of summer, it was arguably enjoyed most. However, it would be a number of years before the trend of iced tea truly caught on.

One of the first iced tea recipes was published by Marion Cabell Tyree in 1879 in a cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia. There, she called for flavoring goblets of iced green tea with two teaspoonfuls of sugar and a squeeze of lemon. In 1904, thousands of goers of the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, turned to ice-cold tea to satiate their thirst, and in 1920, Prohibition saw people across the country replacing their boozy beverages with a refreshing glass of ice-laden tea. By the 1930s, refrigerators with freezers made it easy for people to enjoy iced tea from their homes. Eventually, different sources for imported tea caused black tea to replace traditional green, and this shift caused tea leaves to become more affordable. Sugar also grew less expensive, which meant sweet iced tea became a beverage of choice for more than just the elite.

While iced tea wasn’t born in the South, it’s thought that the method of sweetening it while hot (the key to success for uniform sweetness) was. As with many of the region’s most prized recipes, sweet tea is one of those items that Southerners embraced as their own. However it made its way onto our supper tables, we’re just glad it’s here to stay.


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