Ever wonder how the southern fascination with ice tea got started? Jeffrey Klineman of Slate tells the tale:I’m not a tea drinker, so I’m certainly not a sweet tea drinker, but if you’ve ever been down south you know how popular it is. Sweet Tea’s on almost every menu ya’ll!
Sugar worship might account for much of sweet tea's popularity, but I think its appeal lies in the ice. Southerners seem to have a particular fascination with ice. This may stem, most obviously, from the fact that the Southern climate is often steamier than a Rat Pack schvitz. In an early essay about Southern cuisine published by the American Philosophical Society called Hog Meat and Cornpone: Food Habits in the Ante-Bellum South, Sam Hilliard wrote that a container of cool—not even cold—water, pulled from a nearby spring, was a delicacy at the table. Tea was mostly a drink for the upper class, and early on, it was the rich who had access to the ice that came down on ships or in wagons, at least until icehouses were built in cities (Southern farmers had to wait for the arrival of the Model T). If ice was a luxury, then putting out a pitcher of ice-cold tea must have been quite a bit of hospitality. One historian, Joe Gray Taylor, wrote in Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South: An Informal History that the rural electrification—and, consequently, refrigeration—wrought by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s was "probably more appreciated for the ice cubes it provided … than for any of its other services."Sugar worship—I don’t like the sound of that!
Offering up a glass of sweet tea on a hot day in the South is as welcoming a gesture as passing the doobie at a Phish show. It's so ingrained in the Southern DNA—Marion Cabell Tyree included the recipe in a cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia as early as 1879—that people now post videos online of their infants sampling the stuff. It's a frequent menu item for the condemned, as well as a centerpiece at church suppers. As an April Fools' Day prank in 2003, Georgia State Rep. John Noel introduced a bill that would have made it a misdemeanor for a restaurant owner not to include sweet tea on the menu. Most Southerners can easily tell the difference between fresh sweet tea and the stuff from concentrate—and unless their sugar jones is too strong that day, chances are they'll send the latter back.