Steeped in History
It’s sipped from Mason
jars at church suppers and
shows up in heirloom crystal
pitchers at family gatherings.
It cuts the richness of a pig
pickin’ and is quaffed by the
gallon at summer picnics.
There have been songs
written about it: “Sweet tea,
pecan pie and homemade
wine where the peaches
grow.” Slogans like “If it
ain’t sweet, it ain’t tea” and
“Southern girls are raised on
sweet tea and a whole lot of
Jesus” are emblazoned on
T-shirts and bumper stickers.
as one word) is embedded
in Southern culture, crossing
social, ethnic, and economic
When Dolly Parton’s
character Truvy in the movie
“Steel Magnolias” talks
about “the house wine of
the South,” every Southerner
knows she means sweet tea.
“The Potlikker Papers:
A Food History of the
Modern South,” by Southern
Foodways Alliance direc-tor
John T. Edge, tells us
that sweet tea is “a kind
of culinary-cultural Global
Positioning System, an indi-cator
of where we are and,
yes, who we are.”
Journalist Allison Glock
wrote about the South’s love
for the beverage in “Garden
& Gun”: “Sweet tea isn’t
a drink, really. It’s a culture
in glass. Like Guinness in
Ireland. Or ouzo in Greece.”
Glock was such a devotee
that a bout of homesickness
led her to get “sweet tea”
tattooed on her left arm.
John Shelton Reed and
Dale Volberg Reed’s “Holy
Smoke: The Big Book of
North Carolina Barbecue”
says, “We don’t ask for ‘ice
tea’ or ‘sweet tea’ — just ‘tea’
Southern cookbook author
and North Carolina native
Sheri Castle describes it as “a
rite of passage. Being offered
a glass of sweet tea instead
of milk is how Southern chil-dren
know that they’re grow-ing
In his essay, “Taste of
Tradition,” Fred Thompson
writes, “My mother swears
she didn’t put sweet tea in
my baby bottles, but the
twinkle in her eye and the sly,
sideways smile tell me she’s
probably not being truthful.”
Before 1900, the vast majority of tea in the United States was
green tea from Japan and China. Limited amounts of tea also
came from South Carolina, the first state to grow it commercially.
It is believed that French botanist and explorer Andre Michaux
imported it, along with camellias, gardenias, and azaleas, for wealthy
Charleston plantation owners. He planted tea near Charleston at
Middleton Barony, now known as Middleton Place Gardens.
Tea continues to be produced at the Charleston Tea Plantation on
Wadmalaw Island from plants descended from some of the original
South Carolina plants.
English and American cookbooks show us that tea has been
served cold since at least the early 19th century, when cold green tea
punches that were heavily spiked with liquor were popularized. The
oldest recipes in print are made with green tea, not black tea. The tea
punches went by names such as Regent’s Punch, named after George
IV. By the middle of the 19th century, American versions begin to
acquire regional and even patriotic names, such as Charleston’s St.
Cecilia Punch, named for the musical society whose annual ball it
graced, and Savannah’s potent version, Chatham Artillery Punch.
Recipes for nonalcoholic iced tea didn’t appear in print until
1876, when one was included in Estelle Woods Wilcox’s “Buckeye
Cookbook.” A recipe published in Marion Campbell Tyree’s 1879
community cookbook, “Housekeeping in Old Virginia: Containing
Contributions from 250 Ladies in Virginia and Her Sister States,”
called for green tea.
By the late 1800s, the practice of serving iced tea had spread to
other regions. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair increased the popular-ity
of the beverage when Richard Blechynden, director of the East
Indian Pavilion, added ice at the request of overheated fair attendees.
Blechynden and his team took the brewed India tea, filled several
large bottles, and placed them on stands upside down, allowing the
tea to flow through iced lead pipes. This free iced tea was very much
welcomed by the thirsty fairgoers.
After the fair, Blechynden took his lead pipe apparatus to New
York City, offering free iced tea to shoppers at Bloomingdale Brothers
Iced tea spread quickly across the entire United States in the early
1900s, and it became a common recipe in cookbooks. Black tea had
replaced green tea as the main ingredient and Southerners were refin-ing
the practice of consuming it. Special tall glasses, long spoons, and
lemon forks became customary.
In “Southern Cooking,” published in 1928, Henrietta Stanley Dull
developed a recipe that became the standard for Southern iced tea.
She advised women to serve it with a sprig of mint, a strawberry, a
cherry, a slice of orange, or a ring of pineapple.
“Milk,” she wrote, “is not used in iced tea.”
On April 10, 1995, the South Carolina General Assembly adopted
sweet tea as the state’s “Official Hospitality Beverage.”
The Georgia General Assembly had sweet tea on the agenda in
2003 when State Representative John Noel introduced House Bill
819, proposing “iced tea is sweetened with sugar at the time that it
is brewed.” It also declared that restaurants without sweet tea on the
menu would “be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated
It was later revealed to be an April Fool’s joke, but Noel reportedly
said he wouldn’t mind if it actually passed into law.