Sometimes called "Southern Table Wine," sweet ice tea is a staple in the southeast US. Although it is available in many other parts of the country, in cooler climes ice tea is reserved for the height of summer while southerners drink it year round.
In 1795, French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux (1746-1802) imported tea plants into the United States along with a number of other plants that have since become staples in the south like camellias, gardenias and azaleas. Many of these were planted just outside of Charleston at Middleton Barony, now known as Middleton Place Gardens. In fact, only in South Carolina has tea ever been grown commercially. Today, the Charleston Tea Plantation, home to American Classic Tea is located on Wadmalaw Island and serves as the only tea farm in the US.
Early cookbooks demonstrate that cold tea was popular as early as the early 1800s, though the first mentions were of green teas instead of the current favored black tea. They were also made into punch concoctions, not served as straight tea. The cookbook "Housekeeping in Old Virginia," by Marion Cabell Tyree which was published in 1879 has a recipe for just sweet tea, still using the green. Five years later, "Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking" carried a recipe for sweet tea using black tea.
Iced tea's popularity grew along with the advent of refrigeration systems and ice production. The 20th century brought three events that helped shape ice tea as we know it today. High temperatures during the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 led more people to choose ice tea over previously popular hot drinks. Prohibition and its reduced consumption of alcohol also gave rise to more tea drinkers. Finally, during World War II, supplies of green tea were cut off and US tea drinkers had to rely on sources of black tea from British-controlled India. Green tea has only recently begun to gain a new following.
Today, if you request tea in a restaurant in the southeast, you will most likely be served ice tea, and unless you request otherwise, that tea will be sweet. Hot teas are available on request as is unsweetened tea for the diet conscious.
Ice Tea Recipe
- 1 1/2 quarts cold water
- 5 small tea bags
- 3/4 to 1 Cup of sugar to taste
Place 1 quart of water in a teapot or pan. Bring it to a boil. Place teabags in a pitcher and pour boiling water directly on them. Allow the tea to steep for at least an hour. The longer it steeps the stronger the tea. Remove tea bags, squeezing excess liquid back into pitcher. Stir sugar into the tea until it dissolves (quantity is based on taste) and continue stirring as you add the rest of the water.
Hint: Many people enjoy lemon and/or lemon juice in their ice tea. Cut one whole lemon into 8ths and serve.