Southerners are extremists, there’s no doubt about it. We like our summers hot, our grills stoked and our tea sweet. For as long as there’s been honeysuckle on the vine, folks below the Mason-Dixon have adored that ambrosia called sweet tea. Not just tea, but “sweet tea.” There is a major difference, and if anybody tells you otherwise, they’re terribly wrong.
South Carolina was the first place in the United States where tea was grown and produced commercially. And it has been reported the oldest sweet tea recipe in print was from a community cookbook titled “Housekeeping in Old Virginia” by Marion Cabell Tyree, published in 1879. Mrs. Tyree was from Lynchburg, Virginia, and the last surviving granddaughter of Patrick Henry.
But legends abound on the origins of sweet tea in the Deep South, the more obvious one being at the end of the Civil War the South was left impoverished and to make tea a person needed only water, tea leaves and sugar – which was readily on hand since cane was a major crop, therefore very cheap, so sweet tea became the next best thing to mother’s milk.
But, adversely, sweet tea was also thought to be an extravagance indulged in only by the wealthy. It was a given in those days there were no refrigerators, so the rich were really the only ones who could afford ice. Tea, in its hot form, was also thought of as a libation for the elite, so it really became exclusive refreshment when you co-mingled it with ice.
Whatever the truth may be, it’s bound to be interesting. But as it is with most Southern legends, only the lady-like ghosts of the past truly know. You know the ones – they hang around the veranda on a magnolia-scented night, sipping on that medicinal tea that belles have loved for generations: the mint julep. Of course, the staple ingredient of that Southern dream was bourbon, but some faded family heirlooms show the bourbon mixed with tea.
In today’s South, sweet tea still dominates. The tea parties and soirees are complemented by delicate fine china, in patterns from the past, and cut crystal, all filled with that amber nectar that will never be replaced. You can get your sweet tea at fast-food restaurants, family-type restaurants and even the more upscale, fine-dining establishments.
The fact is sweet tea rules the South. And it’s a pretty safe assumption that more disgruntlements have been settled over a slice of pecan pie and an icy glass of sweet tea, than all the long, drawn-out treaties signed throughout history. And everyone has their own special way of brewing and blending it.
Susan Hanks is one of those people. She has been making tea for her family for years, and before that she made it at home as a girl helping her mama. In fact, she makes the tea according to her mother’s recipe and her father’s boiling specifications.
“My mother always served lemon with her tea, on the side,” she said. “And it had to be cut circular, chilled and presented pleasingly to the eye on a pretty plate. Along with the lemon, I usually serve freshly-grown mint sprigs with mine too. And my mother always served the tea in a unique and attractive decanter. And I continue her tradition. It’s all about the presentation.”
Hanks is an Abbeville, Miss., native and has a penchant for beautiful and unique glasses and pitchers that make her presentation a striking one.
The recipe may be her mother’s, but the boiling technique belongs solely to her daddy.
“My daddy always told me to boil the shoot out of it,” she said. “Only shoot was not his word of choice. No time frame, just until it looked right.”
She also makes a medicinal tea for her husband and her – sans the bourbon in the mint julep. She brews it warm and serves it in fine china cups.
“We drink this tea for the throat, especially a cough,” she said. “It’s tea, honey and cinnamon. You use a heaping spoon of cinnamon and a shot of honey. It almost has too much cinnamon for taste, but since it is for medicinal purposes and not taste-bud satisfaction, you deal with it.”
Hanks said she is a die-hard Lipton lover, but her family prefers Luzianne, so like any good Southern mama, she switched to Luzianne.
Growing up, she said they never drank sodas, very little milk, but always sweet tea.
“In fact, my younger brother swears that our mother had an ironing board and a glass of sweet tea attached somewhere to her body our entire childhood,” Hanks said with a laugh.
Through the years, she said the law of the land in her family was if you want the tea really sweet and don’t want to add extra sugar, you make it the night before and put it in the refrigerator.
“That sweetens it up to almost the taste of syrup,” she said. “My mother did this because she preferred very, very sweet tea.”
Hanks uses one family-sized teabag and one-third cup of sugar per quart. She puts the sugar in the cold water to temper the pitcher so the boiling water doesn’t crack it, as she was taught by her mother. And she makes it often.
“If I made it the way my children and grandchildren wanted it, I’d make it every day,” she said, “three meals a day, and anytime in between.”
She doesn’t use any kind of fruit usually, other than lemon, but she said she’s very fond of making a family member’s many-generations-over recipe for almond-peach tea.
“My nephew’s grandmother, Lake Elliott, who turned 100 her last birthday, gave me her and her husband’s recipe for almond- peach tea that is absolutely divine,” she said.
Hanks is Southern-born and Southern-bred and very proud of her roots. Sweet tea is a tradition she’s handing down to the next generations. And they certainly don’t mind.
“From the youngest to the oldest,” she said, “we all love our sweet tea.”
Story by Angela Rogalski // Photos by Phillip Waller