Monday, July 5, 2010
Memory Monday: Iced Tea
“Got any tea?” This was often a greeting, or at least a response to a greeting, in my home town of Seymour, Texas. You knocked on your relative’s/neighbor’s/friend’s door, they answered “Why, hello! Come on in!” and you asked “Got any tea?” Only it was pronounced more like “Gotneetea?”
This was the South, so we are not referring to hot tea, but iced tea (“ice tea”), the nectar of the South. And it was always sweet. However, contrary to the belief of many Northerners – who may only have experienced presweetened tea in chain restaurants or out of bottles – homemade iced tea is not icky sweet. To avoid “icky sweet” tea in restaurants, my husband the New Yorker and I always order our iced tea unsweetened and then add sugar, but it does not quite get the same effect.
Homemade iced tea had its own little ritual of preparation, and I was surprised when I later learned about Russian tea customs to see that there were actually some points of similarity – well, at least in the preparation. Two separated ingredients are prepared and then combined – the sweet water and the concentrated tea.
The sweet water does not start out cold, because the sugar will not dissolve as well as it does in hot water. Usually very hot water from the tap will be sufficient not to leave any undissolved sugar at the bottom, but you do have to stir for a good while. Ideally the proper combination of sugar and hot water is learned over time in the course of trial and error – it will result in tea that is exactly “sweet enough.” We had a clear glass pitcher and an extra large spoon that were reserved solely for making iced tea.
Next comes preparation of the tea concentrate – and this is the part that is like the Russian zavarka. This is an area where most Southerners are not purists when it comes to bag vs. loose tea leaves and a strainer – you can use either. The main thing is to make sure that the tea concentrate is very strong, because you can always add water if it is too strong, but weak tea is, well … pointless.
I remember that Mom and I had a mangy little pot that we used to boil our tea in. It was made of something more sturdy than aluminum, but it was old, small, dark from repeated use, and kind of banged up. But we knew exactly the right amount of water to put in it, so we never used anything else.
While the tea was heating up, we would toss a few ice cubes (not many) into the sugar water to lower the temperature a bit. The tea concentrate was then added and stirred, and a few more ice cubes were added to bring the temperature down again. The result was not iced tea – that’s what the ice cubes in the glass were for – but the temperature would be something approaching lukewarm, and that could be moved to the refrigerator without disaster or poured over ice cubes without melting them to the point of weakening the tea too much.
This was the drink over which socializing was done. By socializing I mean talking, and by talking I mean mostly gossiping. This was a small town, after all. If someone came over to visit, the TV and radio were turned off. It was a social convention that I never questioned. Visitors received our full attention, even if they were relatives whom we saw several times a week. And besides, full attention has a way of bringing out the juiciest morsels of information from the speaker.
In the course of a visit, one guest, Mom, and I could polish off a full pitcher of tea and make a significant dent in a second one. Our corner of Texas is very dry and large infusions of liquid are always a good idea.
I miss those leisurely Texas social customs. Visiting wasn’t something that was crowded in between work and “activities” – it was the main entertainment and activity outside of work. And to me, “Got any tea?” will always mean “Let’s talk!”