Why "As Southern as Sweet Tea" Isn't Very Southern at All

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[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

In July of 2016, Adrian Miller wrote an insightful piece for First We Feast called "Why Sweet Tea Is the South's Quintessential Drink." Its dek reads: "Bicker all you want about its regional varieties, or where to draw a geographical line—no drink represents Southern culture like sweet tea."

As Miller notes, you hear this sort of thing a lot from Southern food writers. He cites Allison Glock in Garden & Gun—"Sweet tea isn't a drink, really. It's culture in a glass"—and food historian John T. Edge, who muses that sweet tea is "a kind of culinary-cultural Global Positioning System, an indicator of where we are and, yes, who we are."

And, sure enough, there is something undeniably iconic in the South about icy, sugar-laden sweet tea. People write songs about it ("On the eighth day / God made sweet tea"). They plaster emphatic slogans about it on bumper stickers ("If it ain't sweet, it ain't tea") and T-shirts ("Southern girls are raised on sweet tea and a whole lot of Jesus"). Forget Mason and Dixon: One geographer even mapped out the Sweet Tea Line to limn the real border between the North and the South.

It hasn't always been this way, though. The history of sweet tea is a prime example of the process I call "Southernization"—namely, the way in which certain foods and other cultural trappings come to be associated with the region. Some of those associations become so powerful and so prevalent that many Southerners begin to internalize them as integral parts of their identities.

But iced tea didn't originate in the South. It first achieved popularity in the North, where, in the early days at least, it was often sweetened with sugar. It wasn't until well into the 20th century that iced tea was embraced by Southerners; even then, whether one drank it sweetened or unsweetened was a matter of personal choice, not a question of regional identity. The notion that something can be "as Southern as sweet tea" is a very recent one.

First, You Need Iced Tea

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Before there was sweet tea, there was iced tea (or "ice tea," as it's colloquially referred to in the South). That means, simply, a beverage brewed from tea leaves, chilled over ice, and served cold. Iced tea can be flavored in any number of ways: a few squeezes of citrus, an infusion of fragrant spices, perhaps a bit of steeped mint. And, of course, it can be sweetened with sugar.

Though the phrase "sweetened iced tea" is grammatically correct, you'll never hear it used in the South. Instead, iced tea that's been presweetened is invariably called "sweet tea." And by presweetened, we mean sweetened at the time it is brewed, by dissolving a sizable quantity of sugar directly in the hot tea base before diluting it with water or ice. You can sweeten iced tea with a packet of sugar or artificial sweetener just before you drink it, but sweet tea arrives all ready to go. Or, at least, that's the way it works these days.

The practice of drinking iced tea dates back to the 19th century, which is quite a bit earlier than most popular food histories allege. One of the most commonplace origin stories traces iced tea's invention to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Richard Blechynden, the commissioner of Indian tea, had set up shop in the India Pavilion to promote the black teas of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). One sweltering summer day, when few passersby were interested in a cup of hot tea, a desperate Blechynden reportedly decided to pour his tea over ice. In a flash, the story goes, an iconic American beverage was born.

Many other accounts stop short of claiming that Blechynden actually invented iced tea from scratch, but nonetheless credit him with popularizing and commercializing an otherwise rare, under-the-radar drink. The problem is, there's simply no historical evidence to support that claim—or virtually any other story about food items that were supposedly launched at the 1904 exposition.

Though Richard Blechynden was indeed present at the India Pavilion that year, World's Fair historian Pamela J. Vaccaro points out that a man named N. B. Reed had earned over $2,000 (about $50,000 in 2016 dollars) selling iced tea at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. More to the point, even at that earlier date, it was already a well-established beverage.

Tea had been used as an ingredient in chilled beverages starting in at least the early 19th century. Lettice Bryan's 1839 cookbook, The Kentucky Housewife, includes a recipe for "tea punch" that calls for pouring hot tea over sugar before mixing in cream and Champagne or claret wine. Tea was often incorporated into the infamous Southern militia punches, like the Chatham Artillery Punch, the signature drink of an elite Savannah militia unit; along with a dose of citrus, the tea helped mask the whopping amount of alcohol in a libation that tended to lay low even the stoutest of military heroes.

It wasn't until just before the Civil War, though, that people started drinking iced tea as a stand-alone beverage. In 1856, Richmond, Virginia druggist S. P. Semple advertised that, at his soda fountain, "the exhilarating effects of a glass of iced Tea or Coffee [would] speak for themselves." The following year, the Saturday Evening Post ran a short editorial advocating tea as a summer drink. "Tea made strong," the Post argued, "well sweetened, with good milk or better cream in it in sufficient quantity to give it a dark yellow color, and the whole mixture cooled in an ice chest...is the most delicious, the most soothing, the most thirst allaying drink."

The Post piece was reprinted in newspapers across the country, but it inspired few Americans to adopt the beverage. Two months later, a second Post editorial expressed dismay that "our saloon keepers don't advertise these delightful drinks 'which cheer but not inebriate'" and lamented, "We suppose it will be a century before the public finds out what luxuries iced tea and coffee are in the summer solstice."

The public actually found it out much sooner, for 1868 was iced tea's breakout year. On July 6 of that summer, the Boston Journal declared, "During the heated term there is nothing so invigorating as iced tea. A slice of lemon no thicker than a wafer placed in each tumbler adds to the relish." The New-York Commercial Advertiser ran the same notice verbatim just five days later, and the Springfield Republican followed suit three days after.

Some editors saw fit to embellish the notices as they republished them. On July 14, 1868, the Chicago Daily Inter Ocean commented, "Iced tea with a slice of lemon in it is said to be decidedly ahead of lager." On July 24, the Alton Telegraph of Alton, Illinois, asserted, "Iced tea, with a slice of lemon in it, is esteemed by some as infinitely ahead of lager." And then, on August 1, the Harrisburg Telegraph reported, "Iced tea, with a small slice of lemon in it, is said to be decidedly ahead of love, limberger, or lager, as a summer exhilarator."

It's hard to say for sure where the practice of drinking iced tea first became widespread. The evidence, however, points not down South but in the opposite direction. On August 2, the New Orleans Times noted, "Iced tea with lemon juice is said to be a popular and healthy drink at the North." The Boston Herald mentioned New York City specifically: "Iced tea is the latest fashionable drink in Gotham," the paper wrote on July 29.

Iced tea's favor only grew from there. An avalanche of articles in the 1870s and 1880s praised it as a delightful summertime treat. By 1889, Sarah Tyson Rorer could write in her popular column in Table Talk: "Twenty years ago the fondness for that beverage was confined to a few who were looked upon as 'gastronomic cranks'. Today, we are rather inclined to think there is something cranky about a man who says he doesn't like iced tea."

From the very beginning, sweetening iced tea was a common practice, but it was left to the consumer's discretion. Lemon juice was mentioned more often than sugar in the early notices, but the New York Tribune did advise, on July 27, 1868: "Sweeten the hot tea to suit your taste; then pour it, spoonful by spoonful, into a tumbler filled with ice." A few years later, the Vinton Record of McArthur, Ohio, said that iced tea "is made by permitting tea to cool, pouring it over powdered ice, and sweetening it with white sugar, to suit the taste."

And there matters stood for the rest of the 19th century, with iced tea remaining a popular beverage served throughout the country in the warm summer months, sometimes sweetened, but often not, depending on each drinker's preference.

Ice Goes South

It's hardly surprising that iced tea was slower to reach popularity in the South. Though hot tea had been consumed in the region since the colonial era, it was expensive compared to coffee, and therefore considered more of an upper-class beverage—it wasn't until British-owned plantations in eastern India and Ceylon eclipsed the Chinese green tea trade with inexpensive black tea that the drink became affordable. But an even bigger impediment to Southern iced tea was the availability of ice, or lack thereof.

Since the colonial days, Northern consumers had had ready access to ice, which was harvested in local ponds in the winter and stored in ice houses through the summer. That wasn't possible in the South, with its mild winters and long, hot summers. A national trade in frozen water—harvested in Northern lakes and shipped to Southern ports to be stored in insulated ice houses—developed in the early 19th century, but ice remained an expensive luxury, found primarily in coastal cities. Even after the advent of mechanical ice-making in the late 19th century, cold beverages were markers of status, enjoyed mainly by city folks.

In large part, that's because ice wasn't readily available in rural communities until automobiles made it possible to transport big blocks out into the countryside. And it wasn't until electric iceboxes became common, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, that Southerners finally had what they needed to enjoy iced beverages. With unprecedented access to tea and ice, along with a mild climate year-round, the South soon embraced the popular Northern beverage.

But was that tea presweetened?

In her influential cookbook, Southern Cooking (1928), Mrs. S. R. Dull, a Georgia native, does mention presweetening tea, but seems to be lukewarm on the practice: "To sweeten tea for an iced drink," she writes, "less sugar is required if put in while tea is hot, but often too much is made and sweetened, so in the end, there is more often a waste than saving." Presweetening was certainly the standard for at least some of the South, though. In her memoir, Look Away! Dixie Land Remembered, Marion Cyrenus Blackman of Louisiana recalls her family dinners, noting, "Sometimes after we got an icebox we drank tall glasses of iced tea, heavily sugared."

This defining practice of presweetening tea—that is, adding sugar to the hot tea before it is iced and served—does indeed seem to have originated in the South; I haven't been able to find any accounts of tea made this way in Northern sources. But I've also failed to identify a geographical pattern for its prevalence and spread during the mid-20th century.

My own father, who was raised in south Georgia in the 1940s and 1950s, remembers that the tea at his house was invariably served presweetened—in fact, until he went away to college, he had had no idea it could be made any other way. But other Southerners of his generation have told me that their iced tea was never sweetened when they were growing up; that there was always sugar in a bowl on the table, which you could opt to stir in with long-handled iced tea spoons. Indeed, the very presence of those long-handled spoons (introduced in the early 20th century, and formerly quite standard) in silver sets suggests a regular need to stir sweetener into tall glasses.

The Southernization of Sweet Tea

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The 1980s saw the publication of several seminal works on Southern food culture and history, including Joe Gray Taylor's Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South (1982) and John Egerton's Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History (1987). But even on these relatively recent dates of publication, the volumes address iced tea without insisting on its being sweet.

Egerton identifies the following beverages as generally associated with the South: "Sweet milk and buttermilk, iced tea and coffee, orange juice and lemonade.... With iced tea especially, there is a distinct Southern accent; people in the region drink it the year around, whenever and wherever food is served." For Egerton, sugar is not an essential component. His iced tea recipe calls for steeping loose orange pekoe in boiled water, straining the mixture into a pitcher, and diluting with cold water. "Serve in ice-filled glasses," Egerton instructs, "with sugar, lemon or lime, and mint sprigs, if available, for flavor." The accompanying photograph shows a pitcher of tea and two filled glasses topped with mint and lemon slices. A bowl of sugar awaits on the side.

Up to this point, "sweet tea" wasn't even a term used in the South. If you find the phrase "sweet tea" in a newspaper (even a Southern newspaper) from the 1960s or 1970s, it's almost always referring to hot tea enjoyed in some faraway place, like Egypt, Dubai, or Sri Lanka.

That started to change in the last years of the 20th century. In 1989, Kathy Petty, a columnist for the Augusta Chronicle in Augusta, Georgia, joked that "getting a glass of sweet iced tea above the Mason–Dixon line is about as likely as finding a reactor pipe at SRP without a crack in it." ("SRP" refers to the Savannah River Plant, a nuclear facility near Augusta that was famously plagued by defects.) By the 1990s, people were becoming quite emphatic about the linkage. "Southern ice tea is always very sweet," a writer for Alabama's Anniston Star declared in 1994. "It's not Southern tea (and in the South isn't worth much) if it doesn't have a lot of sugar added to it way in advance."

In 1993, sociologist John Shelton Reed analyzed a series of polls conducted by the University of North Carolina and concluded that "seven out of eight Southerners drink iced tea, and two-thirds of those prefer sweetened to unsweetened." The groups that were less likely to drink their tea sweet were college graduates (of whom 53% preferred sweetened tea), those with salaries greater than $60,000 (59%), and people who never went to church (59%). Godlessness and aversion to sweet tea were apparently starting to go hand in hand.

By the end of the 20th century, the Southernness of sweet tea was sufficiently established that the idea began to be used metaphorically. In his book Southern Belly (2000), John T. Edge calls the secret ingredient in the chili dogs at Nu-Way Weiners in Macon, Georgia, "as Southern as sweet tea," since each has a dose of barbecue sauce beneath the chili. Around the same time, the Mississippi-based McAlister's Deli chain started advertising its trademarked "Famous Sweet Tea" as "the house wine of the South," borrowing a line that had appeared in the 1989 film Steel Magnolias. (Though, when Dolly Parton said it, her character was talking about iced tea, not necessarily sweet tea.)

So why did Southerners suddenly rally around a sweetened drink as a marker of their identity? I think Jeffrey Klineman may have put his finger on it in an ode to sweet tea that he wrote for Slate in 2007. The article links the beverage to the region's uneasy relationship with its own past:

The South reveres its traditions, and sweet tea is one of them. Dixie has had some embarrassments in its time: There's that whole Civil War thing, the whole Judge Roy Moore thing, that whole Naples, Fla., Swamp Buggy Queen thing, to name a few. Getting your nose rubbed in your own traditions too many times makes you cling to those that aren't, well, illegal.

Klineman grew up in Atlanta in a transplanted Jewish family, his mother from Brooklyn and his father from Cleveland. He latched onto sweet tea, he says, as a way to "assimilate with my classmates." That jibes with my own experience, growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta and, later, Greenville, South Carolina. Though I was born in the South to Southern parents, many of my classmates weren't. All of us were growing up somewhere in between an older South—the South of memory and legend, of agriculture, slavery, and Jim Crow—and the larger American culture that we absorbed from television and scarfed down in the fast food chains that lined our suburban highways.

In the post–civil rights movement era, the South was stumbling toward becoming a fully integrated society (a process we're still stumbling through today), and we Southerners were searching for things to anchor our collective identity. Some celebrated their inner redneck, waving the Confederate flag, spouting off about "heritage," and spinning misty tales about a mythic South that never was. Others tried to cast off their Southernness altogether, embracing white wine and Brie and similar badges of white-collar sameness. (In the late 1980s, a professor at my private liberal arts college bragged, "A lot of students arrive here with Southern accents, but they all leave here sounding the same.")

Many Southerners, I suspect, found neither of those paths satisfactory. We needed to find something that connected us with our past and defined who we were, without offending half the people around us or pretending to be something that we weren't. And we could declare with pride our allegiance to sweet tea, for it was distinctive but not particularly controversial. Sweet tea was safe.

Sweet Tea Takes America

Regional markers are impermanent things. Sweet tea's Southernness isn't really all that old, and it's already starting to fade. America's restaurant chains, it seems, are determined to make it a national obsession instead.

In 2006, after many years of resistance, McDonald's added sweet iced tea to its menus, though it initially did so only in Southern outlets. (The presence of sweet tea in McDonald's locations was the criterion used to create that map of the Sweet Tea Line in Virginia, though it turns out the data-gathering process was decidedly less than scientific.) Just two years later, the burger chain started rolling out sweet tea nationwide, taking it to former sweet-tea deserts like Chicago and Los Angeles.

Just a few years ago, the only place in New York City where you could find a glass of fresh-brewed sweet tea was in a Southern-themed restaurant. (We're ignoring here, of course, bottled tea products, like Snapple Lemon Tea and Nestea, which were introduced nationwide in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but are, in my mind at least, more like sweet-tea-flavored beverages than proper "sweet tea.") These days, Southern chains like Chick-fil-A have invaded the city, bringing their sweet iced tea with them. In the summertime, New Yorkers line up at Starbucks for "Trenta" (30-ounce) cups of shaken iced tea, each sweetened by default with seven pumps of simple syrup.

"Now that sweet tea is peddled by barkeeps and restaurant waitstaff across the country," Adrian Miller asks in his First We Feast essay, "has sweet tea lost its power as a symbol of Southern culture? Should we now think of it as something that is just 'American?'"

Perhaps we should. After all, it hasn't really been Southern for too long, and an entire region's identity is an awful lot of cultural baggage for a simple beverage to bear.