Iced tea: Southerner discovers world of variation


Iced tea: Southerner discovers world of variation

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/11/05
As a young boy who rarely ventured far from my family's South
Georgia farm, it never occurred to me that there was anything to
drink with a meal other than iced tea. After milk, "ice tea" was the
first great liquid love of my life.

Then an awful thing happened.

I discovered that the syrupy elixir my Mama made didn't just flow
like pre-sweetened manna from heaven. Dining at the home of distant
relatives who I remember thinking were slightly "different," I
realized that the beverage could be pungent, off-putting and
sugarless. No matter how much we stirred and pinged our tumblers
with the elegant, long-handled silver spoons, their tea wasn't fit
for company.

Years later, I still slurp sweet iced tea with abandon — not to
mention lemon and mint — and can't think of a better libation than
the so-called "house wine of the South," which is flavorful,
inexpensive and easy to brew. In my home, a pitcher of tea is as
essential to summer as chunks of chilled watermelon and tomato
sandwiches dripping with juice and mayonnaise.

But just as iced tea has evolved from a Southern affectation into an
American classic gulped year-round, my jug of tea has become a test-
tube for sampling exotic brews from around the world.

As scientific studies weigh the health benefits of tea, I've
indulged in the thrilling variety of stimulants that can be
concocted from the dried leaves of the Camellia sinensis bush. I
have deconstructed iced tea to reveal its pure, clean, astringent
taste, then spiked it up again with herbal infusions, fruit-juice
sweeteners and soothing layers of milk and cream.

In sum, I've turned over a new leaf.

Call me the Auntie Mame of iced tea, but the thought of oolong gives
me the ooo-la-las.

So, dear, how about a tumbler of cool jasmine-pearl tea brewed with
ginger and lemon grass, then stirred with honey and mint? Or a mock
sangria spiked with pomegranate juice and jazzed up with pineapple
chunks and citrus slices? Or a ridiculously sweet Thai iced tea
streaked with an indulgent dollop of milk?

Oddly enough for a Southern boy, I have discovered that tea and
sugar don't have to be constant companions. In other words, I don't
get upset if sucrose and honey crash my tea parties. But their
presence is hardly mandatory.

This leads to another tea tale.

Vacationing in Ho Chi Minh City a few summers ago with my friend
Poj, a heat wave made it impossible for us to walk any longer
without a cold beverage. Fortunately, we stumbled into a darling
little room called the Have a Nice Day Cafe. Not knowing any better,
we ordered Vietnamese iced coffee with milk and sugar and lapped it
up like thirsty puppies.

Then came a splendid surprise.

Our waiter appeared with glasses of iced jasmine tea, possibly the
most satisfying and soul-centering tonic I've ever consumed. Here
was plain tea that restored the senses with the scent of green
leaves and the delicate fragrance of jasmine petals.

And no sugar.

The sweetness of this tea was in the way it was served and received,
with kindness and gratitude. In Vietnam, where the weather reminded
me of the scorching summers of my youth, I realized that iced tea,
whether offered by a stranger or administered by a doting Southern
grandma, is a lovely, honest thing.

On the journey of life, such hospitality can't come often enough.