This is going to be controversial, I know it. What I'm about to tell you will no doubt draw plenty of surprise, disappointment, and critical comments, but I won't (pun intended) sugarcoat it: I don't like sweet tea. I've pretended over the years, but I'm an impostor, a fake, a genuine sweet tea fraud.
Cue the gasp from the peanut gallery. Sweet tea is sacred in the South, the fuel that gets so many of our genteel engines running. You didn't see Uncle Si on Duck Dynasty forever clutching a cup of orange juice, now did you? Dolly Parton's character, Truvy, so wisely sums it up in Steel Magnolias, "It's the house wine of the South." Around here, tea is an all-day beverage, the perfect quencher for any and every occasion. Just to show how serious Southerners can get about their sweet tea, in 2003, the Georgia State Legislature (jokingly) considered making serving unsweetened tea at any restaurant operating within its border a criminal act.
Southern church suppers practically revolve around the sweet tea station. A gallon pitcher of extra sweet iced tea is as much a staple in a Southern house as the Bible or a can of extra hold aerosol hairspray. The bigger the holiday, the more tea we're going to need on hand. Easter Sunday? That's a two pitcher occasion in our house. Thanksgiving and Christmas? Those gatherings call for at least three pitchers, because no one wants their yuletide turkey and dressing ruined by having to drink tap water. Tea is such a fixture in the South that the popular 1990s band from South Carolina, Cravin Melon, even had a song entitled "Sweet Tea." I'll let you listen to the catchy ditty on your own, but I'll go ahead and tell you the gist of the lyrics: "Cause on the eighth day, God made sweet tea."
In fact, we don't even bother to call it "sweet" because down here, if it doesn't have a cup or five of sugar in it, it's not really tea. Southern mamas are renowned for their sugar sweet iced tea making--my mother-in-law's tea was famous among my husband's college crowd for being so sweet it would make your teeth ache, and they loved every sip of it. On many an occasion, I have watched my own mother pour straight from the bag of Dixie Crystal sugar, or "eyeball it" as we like to say. When in doubt, sweeter is better than not sweet enough. Can I get an amen?
Except I, as Southern as they come, prefer unsweetened tea. Shock and awe, I know. I remember being taken, very much against my will, to PoFolks restaurants as a child. Sitting there with a huge mason jar full of the sweet stuff in front of me, while being forced to endure a plate of vegetables, was pure torture. For many years, once I was old enough to control my own drink destiny, I didn't drink tea at all, opting for my beloved Diet Coke or a simple glass of water whenever the syrupy stuff was served. And then one day, whether out of boredom or desperation I can't say, I ventured into unsweet tea territory. Without the sugar, we are basically talking about a tall glass of caffeinated water. As it turns out, I'm a fan.
This causes confusion at fast food chains, bewilderment from waitresses, disapproving looks even from friends and relatives. It seems contrary to practically everyone I encounter that someone with my Southern drawl would order the most Yankee of beverages. I've been asked why, how? Maybe it has to do with the fact that I prefer salty snacks to sweets? Or, since I am a girl who is perpetually thirsty, a sip of concentrated cane sugar just doesn't quite quench it for me? Whatever the case, I notice the looks and reactions my drink choice garners. I have to push aside the guilt I feel for shunning deep South protocol. Surely, since I have always been willing to say sir and ma'am, wear a slip, curl my hair, and pledge allegiance to grits, I can be forgiven for this one wayward faux pas?
Maybe it's the way that tea cuts through the grease of fried chicken, or the sweetness that's right up there with the pralines and pies we love so much, or the idea of a tall glass of iced tea enjoyed in the shade of a porch on a hot day. Whatever the allure is, sweet tea is absolutely considered the nectar of the Southern gods. Even after all this talk of good taste and tradition, I still remain inexplicably immune to the charms of the sweet stuff, which is why I'll continue to (sheepishly, with an apologetic shrug) sip my unsweetened version. I like to think, as my granddaddy would have said, it's because I'm sweet enough already.