Drinks for a Rebel Reunion, Part 1
If you’re traveling south of the Mason-Dixon Line and you stop at any restaurant, café, or dive and order tea, you’re most likely going to get a tall glass of a syrupy concoction that has the potential to lock your jaws. And no, sweetened tea is not necessarily the same thing as sweet tea, and yes, the people of the South will be happy to tell you the difference.
According to their rules for sweet tea, it begins with hot, freshly brewed tea, then is sweetened with heaping amounts of sugar. It’s stirred, then poured over plenty of ice. Anything else is an alien breed that any good Southerner will tell you isn’t worth your time.
In light of the recent rebirth of moonshine and interest in its culture, the birth of tea in this country deserves another visit. The mystique of rebelliousness we associate with white lightning might well have begun in a pot of tea steeped in colonial America.
Many historians mistakenly attribute the invention of iced tea to Richard Blechynden’s accidental marketing campaign during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The weather during the Fair was sweltering, and Blechynden wasn’t having any traffic at his tea exhibit. He added ice into the mix to increase his traffic, and suddenly, iced tea was a fad. In fact, there are records of iced tea being served decades before, and of iced tea’s growing popularity running parallel to the availability of refrigeration throughout the South. So, when and why did Southerners begin crafting their signature beverage?
The answer may be found in simple science. Most colonists were accustomed to the milder climates from whence they came, but those who lived in the South had to endure sweltering heat. With cool drinking water a luxury in itself, the soothing effects of hot tea were negated by a steamy climate. Simply put: Who wants to drink hot tea when it’s a thousand degrees outside, especially if you’re a lady swathed in the multi-layered fashions of the colonial era?
Once it was discovered that tea could be made with ice, the cold drink quickly became a favorite. The problem, however, was that ice melted quickly in this climate, causing any inherent sweetness and flavor of the tea to dilute. With sugar readily available from plantations in Louisiana and Texas, it was an obvious choice for enhancing the flavor of the diluted mixture. A simple enough explanation–but could there be a more “American” reason behind iced tea’s popularity?
Tea in America
Tea first made its arrival on the American scene in 1650, when Dutch settler Peter Stuyvesant brought green tea with him to the New World. A luxury item in Europe, it didn’t take long for tea to be enjoyed by the masses here. American colonists were soon subjected to taxes levied on tea and other exports, however. As a consequence, boycotts of tea led to an increase in consumption of other beverages, such as coffee or herbal infusions of peppermint, sage, or dandelions.
For many years, these taxes weren’t enforced, but over time, the Crown realized the potential increase in revenue and political clout, and the taxes became a catalyst for revolt. For many, tea-drinking became unpatriotic. Smuggling, already a common practice, became increasingly prevalent. Regulators had essentially turned a blind eye to smuggling, and with increased bribes and dissatisfaction with Britain, tea became one of the hottest commodities on the black market.
One of the rulings that instituted taxes on the colonists was the Sugar Act. It implemented new guidelines for prosecuting accused smugglers. The penalties were overly harsh and the evidence used to convict smugglers was often fraudulent. Luckily, there were men who were sympathetic to the colonists’ cause of free trade. For instance, when a colonist was caught smuggling, the judge might call a trial for a time when the customs official was away, which would result in dismissal. If a judge was left with no choice but to convict the smuggler and confiscate his ship, he might later sell the vessel back to the smuggler for a minimal charge. Either way, the system was corrupt, with many people being bought at all levels. Eventually, the colonists had enough, and the rest is history.
America itself was born from the idea that a people should not be taxed without adequate representation. The ramifications of the taxation of tea by the British assured that this new country would be established. For the rebellious colonials of America, embracing sweet tea could have been a not-so-subtle way of indicating displeasure toward those who would tread on their autonomy. And mixing smuggled tea with home-grown sugar is not too far a cry from distilling home-grown corn and selling it through backchannels revenuers can’t reach.
In Part 2, we pick up the story twenty years later on the American frontier, as the taste of rebellion turns from from sweet to sinful.