Friday, February 27, 2015

Suited to a Tea

I didn't grow up in the South.

When I went to school in Chicago, one guy referred to me as being "from the South," but everyone laughed at that. I was from south of there, but not the South. Growing up, I learned about the South in terms of Colonel Sanders and his white suit, picking cotton, the Mason Dixon Line, and them Duke Boys, who had a car named the General Lee for... some reason.

And after I left the childhood education of TV characters behind, I had a widening perspective of the various forces and entities that composed southern states. But even learning that the South encompassed a wider variety of cultures and ideas than I ever knew about, I was also aware that I wasn't "it," with my suburban St. Louis upbringing. I was, if anything, Mid-West, which has less claim to charming eccentricity and more to being a plain-speaking farmer.

But I want to address something I've noticed especially in the last decade or so. Something that marks me as "not Southern" as much as anything geographically or historically. And as with the history of our country, let's start with tea.



My parents have made ice tea for as long as I can remember. I can even remember the shape of the pitcher, used until it cracked. They make tea by boiling a pot of tea and then letting it rest until room temperature (the ice part is added just before drinking).

At some point after learning about iced tea, I learned that one could simply drink the hot iced tea. This is known as "tea." Later still, I learned that some will call this "hot tea," possibly for extra clarity in the identification process but also possibly because of a general ignorance of the process. Any tea was most likely hot at some point, because brewing tea requires the addition of hot water to the leaves of a tea plant. Likely there were some advertising and branding issues associated attempting to sell under the "no longer hot tea" concept.

My first trip to England, I was offered tea by the mother of the family I was staying with. It was afternoon -- tea time -- and she prepared a pot and kettle. Did I want milk? "Umm, sure." How about sugar? "Umm, sure." And I ended up with something that was very different than any tea I'd had. When I was growing up, tea was often associated with illness, as that was the time when my mother was most likely to offer something to ease the throat and open the sinuses. Adding sugar and milk was odd to me in that clash-of-cultures way, but not something I'd turn down.

The first time I came across the Southern staple of sweet tea was in 2003, working at the St. Louis Bread Company. The employee manual had a recipe for making "sweet tea" which I thought must be incorrect, given the amount of sugar added to a brewing container of tea. The district manager assured me it was right, but it wasn't used in St. Louis.

I'd seen people add sugar to iced tea, but just a packet of that weird pink-containered sweet chemical that seemed to be at many tablesides. The idea of dumping a five-pound bag of sugar into not-that-much tea seemed like a type of worrying excess associated with the feverish end stage of tropical diseases or the end of decades-long love affairs. Probably nobody drank it, they just used it in some sort of strange Southern ritual designed to celebrate and reward hummingbirds.

Years later, I was in a reception in Charlotte where the host offered iced tea or sweet tea in separate commercial dispensers. She referred to it as "the house wine of the South," a description I adore and which has never failed to make anyone who has tried sweet tea smile in recognition. I tried some, reasoning this would be "authentic," and couldn't finish my small glass. It was paralyzingly sweet. Wikipedia asserts that while the typical sweet tea is not as sweet as conventional carbonated soda, it is not abnormal to find brews that are twice as sweet as Coca-Cola. [My teeth just did an involuntary grind there.]

In the decade that I've lived in Kansas City, sweet tea has slowly moved in. Despite being less-southern in a geographical sense than St. Louis, sweet tea is now often on the menu at both quick restaurants and more staid sit-down affairs. McDonalds, dominant in its sheer ubiquitea [sic], introduced its sweet tea to much fanfare and signage several years ago. I don't know where the region is, but it's clearly outside of sweet tea's original home.

And all that is fine. Choice is a beautiful thing, and most sweet tea (like most iced tea) is simple and straightforward. If the people want it, it's fine to serve it. Nobody's forcing me to have some.

Except when they do actually force me to have some.

The effort to sell it seems to have increased as late, and several restaurants now refer to iced tea as "unsweetened tea." That partially suggests that the natural state of tea is sweetened, but that's a quirk of English verbs; something that is fastened becomes unfastened, something that is corked becomes uncorked. Tea is not "unsweetened" because it isn't sweet in the first place. It's also twice the number of syllables to say what used to just be "iced tea" and it especially seems to cause confusion over the electronic voice systems in drive-through lines.

ME: I'd like iced tea.
THEM: Sweet or unsweet?
ME: UN-sweet. <emphasizing the "un">
THEM: I clearly heard the sweet part, but "un" doesn't carry well. I'll give you sweet tea.
ME: I'm home before I figure this out with the first baleful sip. Thanks, Obama!

or...

ME: ...with iced tea.
THEM: Sweet tea?
ME: No. I do not want sugar in my drink.
THEM: What's that? Sugar mumble mumble drink? Sweet tea it is.
ME: Damn it. Why is this even a thing that people drink?!

If I were an angry sort of person, who hated sweet tea and the change it represented, I'd resent the dollars they charged me for a "drink" I couldn't actually drink. Angry me would drive back through the line, raising my volume and taking out all my righteous fury on someone half my age who wasn't paying attention. I'd lecture them about how it shouldn't be this way. I'd get very angry about how I speak perfectly clearly, is there something wrong with their heads?!

But I am not an angry sort of person (am I "not angry" or "UN-angry"? hmm...). In fact, the anger of customers is a far more unpalatable thing than the wrong sort of tea. Being in the service industry taught me that. So, I remember that people who grew up in different places have different tastes. I remember that it is not even worth the small amount of anger I might spend on it. And I write about it while laughing at the words I use, take the lid off the cup, pour it out, and replace it with water.

Crisis averted.

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