Sep 14 2008

Of the Empire

I attended the Decatur Book Festival last month, and in the 100+ degree heat (at least, it felt like that) found myself wandering slowly around, fingering all the paper-arts and handmade leather journals but spending my money at the booths of the many small independent booksellers in the square. From Wordsmiths, a collection of essays by Gary Snyder called Back On The Fire. And from Charis Books — a shop that makes me nostalgic for my radical feminist days when I followed Mary Daly from an adoring distance, too shy to declare my overwhelming crush– I picked up a copy of Mary Oliver’s Red Bird. And the first poem I opened to, at random, was this:

Of the Empire

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and the the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Sep 10 2008

Sweet tea

“In the south, sweetened ice tea is taken for granted, like the idea that stock car racing is our national pastime and that the Southern Baptist chrch is a legitimate arm of the Republican Party. If you order ice tea in a restaurant, it will arrive presweetened. If you want it unsweetened, you must ask for it. Actually, you must demand it with pistol drawn and cocked.”
–Fred Chappell, “Iced Tea: A Contrarian’s View” from Cornbread Nation by John Edgerton

The first meal I had in Wilmington was a Hardee’s combo from a drive-through window. (My options were a little limited at home, where everything was still in boxes). The girl handed me a paper bag greasy form the upturned French fries, and a slippery waxed cup for my Coke. “Soda” I had said when asked. Where I grew up in Buffalo, we called it “pop”, but in Boston it was “soda.” When I took a sip, though, it was sweet tea.

I’ve since learned that no matter what I tell the mysterious little creature in the drive through intercom I want to drink, I am more than likely to be handed a cup of sweet tea at the window. I don’t even check any more. It happens to me at restaurants, at hot dog stands, and at refreshment stands. In fact, the first thing I had to become acclimated to living in the South wasn’t the heat, wasn’t the hurricanes, wasn’t even the barbecue. It was sweet tea.

Just how this drink became so ubiquitous in the South—so prevalent that couple of years ago a Georgia state official tried to pass a bill requiring sweet tea be served in all restaurants as an April Fool’s joke (everybody laughed but the bill was deemed unnecessary)–is something of a mystery. Hoodlums in Boston may have been dumping boxes of tea into the harbor, but by the end of the 1700s it was being grown in South Carolina—the only state to attempt to make tea a commercial crop. Before there was sweet tea, apparently, there was punch—English aristocrats, bored and taking decadence to new heights, hit upon the idea of spiking bowls of cold tea with fruit and liquor. This went over phenomenally well in England and like all English fashions began to be slavishly copied by the upper classes on these shores. Regional versions of quickly popped up, each trying to out do the last in potency. Charleston has its St. Cecelia Punch, and Savannah its notorious Chatham Artillery Punch:

Chatham Artillery Punch

– 1 1/2 gallons catawba wine
– 1/2 gallon rum
– 1 quart gin
– 1 quart brandy
– 1/2 pint Benedictine
– 2 quarts Maraschino cherries
– 1 1/2 quarts rye whiskey
– 1 1/2 gallons strong tea
– 2 1/2 pounds brown sugar
– 1 1/2 quarts orange juice
– 1 1/2 quarts lemon juice

Mix from 36 to 48 hours before serving. Add one case of champagne when ready to serve.

There is a legend to the effect that the punch was originally created by the genteel wives of the Chatham Artillery members, and it is they who are responsible for the tea, the sugar and the orange and lemon juices in the recipe. But while the punch was brewing, their husbands, the rascals, snuck into the kitchens and secretly added a little of this or a little of that to give the punch a bit of a kick. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) the men didn’t tell each other what they were up to, and most of the secret stashes in the barracks ended up in the punch.

It wasn’t until ice became generally available in the mid 1800’s that iced tea became a popular drink, with recipes showing up in church and family cookbooks. It was the refreshment of choice at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis and has remained popular ever since. Up until World War II, the “tea” in iced tea might have been either black or green tea, but the war cut off the usual sources of green tea, and the only tea available was black tea from British-controlled India. After the war, black tea was almost universal in the US, and it is only very recently that green teas have come back into favor.

So how do you make Southern sweet tea? Southern women get as fussy over the proper way to make sweet tea as Southern men do over the proper way to barbecue a pig. The main thing to remember is that tea is a delicate plant that doesn’t take kindly to abuse. Using boiling water will ruin a pot of tea and make it bitter. So regardless of whether you believe that the water should be brought to the pot, or the pot to the water, it is vital that after you bring the water to a boil, you turn off the heat and let it sit for a couple of minutes before pouring it over the tea to brew.

If there is a classic “original” sweet tea recipe it is this one from Henrietta Stanley Dull, who was the Home Economics Editor for the Atlanta Journal in 1928:

TEA – Freshly brewed tea, after three to five minutes’ infusion, is essential if a good quality is desired. The water, as for coffee, should be freshly boiled and poured over the tea for this short time . . . The tea leaves may be removed when the desired strength is obtained . . . Tea, when it is to be iced, should be made much stronger, to allow for the ice used in chilling. A medium strength tea is usually liked. A good blend and grade of black tea is most popular for iced tea, while green and black are used for hot . . . To sweeten tea for an iced drink-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 . . . Iced tea should be served with or without lemon, with a sprig of mint, a strawberry, a cherry, a slice of orange, or pineapple. This may be fresh or canned fruit. Milk is not used in iced tea.

But oddly enough, I don’t like Mrs. Dull’s directions, which always makes the tea taste too bitter. My usual recipe comes from Mama Dip, although I’ve altered it a little bit because Mama Dip likes her tea a little stronger than I do:

Rosa’s Southern Sweet Tea

9 family-sized tea bags, or 18 regular-sized tea bags
1 cup sugar
1 quart of boiling water
1 quart of cold water

Take the boiling water off the heat and let is sit for two minutes. Pour it into a pot and add the tea bags (I usually take the little paper tags off and tie all the strings together). Let steep for 15 minutes. Pour into a pitcher, add sugar and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved. (Having grains of un-dissolved sugar in your tea is like wearing a new dress and forgetting to cut off the price tag). Add the cold water to the pot and squeeze the tea bags against the sides of the pot with the back of a spoon. Give the cold water a quick stir and then add it to the pitcher as well. Serve in tall glasses 2/3 full with ice.

You can add slices of lemon to either the pitcher or in the individual glasses, but don’t squeeze the lemons into the iced tea, and don’t, no matter what, use lemon flavoring or mix.