How sweet it is

Southern iced tea

While hot tea may be associated with English tradition, iced tea is closely linked to Southern hospitality. In restaurants across the Southern U.S., iced tea (almost always served sweetened) is revered. The importance of the beverage to the South can be summed up by a quote from the movie Steel Magnolias: Dolly Parton's character calls sweet tea "the house wine of the South." Restaurateurs closely guard their proprietary recipes, which are handed down through generations. For over a hundred years, the recipes have been simple and straightforward: tea leaves, cane sugar, and water. But that is slowly changing, according to Imbibe magazine. Avant garde Southern chefs are tweaking the classic sweet tea formula to make signature drinks for their restaurants.

The simplicity of the basic iced tea recipe belies the complex flavors that make it lip-smackingly delicious. Custom tea blends are created; the quantity of sugar is adjusted to satisfy local palates; even the temperature of the water is subject to scrutiny. For some Southerners, changing the formula is tantamount to sacrilege. Many enterprising young chefs are challenging that notion, albeit cautiously. "You certainly have to be careful when you offer something outside of the norm in terms of sweet tea in the South," says Trey Cioccia, chef and owner of Farm House in Nashville. Their signature iced tea is made with "oranges that have been charred on a grill, brewed with tea and a honey-sugar mix that's then served over ice." Meanwhile, at another Tennessee restaurant called Husk, chef "Sean Brock's sweet tea puts the focus entirely on the leaves. Brock asked Tiffany Malapanes of Positiffitea, in nearby Murfreesboro, to make an organic custom blend for the restaurant."

The Imbibe article is chock full of the history of iced tea in the South, including competing theories about its origins. Towns throughout the South claim bragging rights for the invention, and the oldest known recipe for sweet tea dates to an cookbook first published in 1879 called Housekeeping in Old Virginia. The EYB library features many recipes for iced tea, ranging from the simple (hot-brewed iced tea) to the fanciful (lime iced tea with borage flower ice cubes).

Are you a fan of sweet iced tea? What's your favorite recipe?

Photo by Darcie Boschee

1 Comment

  • boardingace  on  7/5/2014 at 8:04 AM

    I think it's neat that some chefs are getting more innovative with it! (Of course I'm not Southern - lol). We were just in Georgia and we did have to ask for unsweetened tea. I also realized that your espresso comes sweetened if you don't say anything too - lol! [At least, the one I ordered did] I don't usually drink espresso and thought it was delicious, and my husband let me know why it was so good - hehe.

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