There isn’t one thing, in my mind, that helps define the Southern experience more than tea. Not just any type of tea. Sweet tea. This drink is refreshing as it is crucial to the Southerner’s existence. It’s about quenching thirst during punishing humidity that makes up
every summer morning, afternoon and evening.
There’s history. There’s heritage. There’s identity. It all sits and swirls in a glass of sweating amber.
You share some solidarity with a glass of fresh sweet tea. The condensation sliding down the glass is the same as a hard day’s sweat stinging your eyes.
The iconic drink is what I would call my own lifeblood. You cut me; I bleed sweet tea. I cherish all that the cleanly brewed black tea can offer.
All throughout the Southeast, tea makes its mark on restaurants pretty clear. You can’t escape its grasp. If a server asks for your drink your and denies a request for sweet tea because there is none? Then that business is lost. You don’t just settle for a Coke or a glass of water.
That’s just like coming in second place because you were tired of running. I can’t say I’ve visited a restaurant of any type, minus a cafe that only serves coffee drinks and types of hot tea, but those are abominations that can be discussed another time, while living in Georgia for more than two decades. You make a personal statement by abstaining from the sale of sweet, a dangerous statement.
During a week-long stay in Seattle, I had not thought much of the lack of sweet tea until I casually glanced inside a restaurant in the
convention center. The sight moritifed me. Two staples of the soda fountain had been removed, even forgotten I initially thought. Could this be true? The vibrant brushed aluminum canisters were nowhere to be found. To these burrito makers, they never existed. At this moment, I realized while in the majesty of the Pacific Northwest that I was missing something. Something important to me.
This hadn’t been the first time I was without sweet tea. I remember when I first moved to Japan on a year-long stay. The 17-hour, fragmented plane ride had left me parched and famished. As a Southerner, the first thing that comes to mind when quenching your thirst is obvious. It wasn’t water. It wasn’t Coke. It was sweet tea. What did ‘sweet tea’ even look like in Japanese? I didn’t know then. I still don’t now. The vending machine at the train station had bottles of brown liquid. “This looks like tea,” I thought. And in a hurry, I bought one, desperate for a drink. I had never made a more desperate mistake in my life. I was excited to drink something after such extended dehydration. I knew I would be satisfied. I tasted the tea and felt only confusion, misery, sadness, pain. This wasn’t tea. It was an abomination, and in whatever embarrassment would follow, I spat the drink out. A huge puff of brown vapor, a actual spit-take.
I had been betrayed by a bottle I didn’t know how to read. It was a tea, no sweetener added, that was good for your body. Something to make you healthier or more beautiful. Whatever it’s title was, I just knew it then as the tea to never ever drink again.
For my year-long stay, I adapted to tolerate, no , actually enjoy many different types of tea. All cold. The temperature distinction stayed important. Kyoto shared a climate much like Georgia’s. Cold when it needed to be and so uncomfortably humid, you didn’t want to be outside unless you had to. It just wasn’t as hot.
I found myself preferring oolong and green tea primarily. These two teas became my supplemental lifeblood without the crucial Tetley tea bags I had known since I was a child. On a whim, I bought a small carton of lemon tea. My life changed. It had sugar. It was cold. It had a hint of lemon. It WAS sweet tea, not as I knew it, but it worked. Lemon tea defined me, as sweet tea had my entire life.
Classmates knew I craved it. They saw the cartons lining my wall in my dorm room before recycling days came. I even received ‘gifts’ of lemon tea liters. I had found my replacement and regained some of my identity.