On October 8, the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce officially launched the Sweet Tea Trail with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Hutchinson Square. There was a sweet tea bar offering different varieties of the iconic Southern beverage, games of cornhole, and the unveiling of the “Sweet Tea” Trolley.
The trail is designed, as the Chamber puts it, “to help visitors and locals alike explore the wonderment of Summerville,” and it guides them from I-26 through the town’s historic and shopping districts.
As part of this effort, the Chamber has trademarked the tagline “The Birthplace of Sweet Tea,” and it has plastered it on billboards up and down I-26 and I-95 — the latter, I assume, to snag susceptible Yankees before they get drawn in by the alligator farms down in Georgia.
It’s pretty bold for a town to claim to have originated what is now a cherished icon of Southern culinary life. There’s just one slight problem with the claim: it’s not true.
This whole hullabaloo, apparently, traces back to Will Rizzo’s cover story in the Spring 2010 issue of Azalea magazine, a Summerville publication focused on local lifestyle topics. The article relates the story of Dr. Charles Shepard and his Pinehurst Tea Plantation, which was in production in Summerville between 1888 and 1915 and was the first successful American tea plantation.
The trouble comes at the very end of the piece, when Rizzo turns his attention from tea growing to the provenance of iced tea. He repeats the oft-repeated legend that iced tea was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and then quotes a newspaper article from 1890 that enumerates the provisions for a Confederate veterans’ reunion, which include, in addition to staggering quantities of beef, ham, and bread, “880 gallons of iced tea to wash it down.”
Rizzo’s first point — that the 1890 newspaper story debunks the notion that iced tea was invented at the 1904 World’s Fair — is spot on. The next part is what one can only assume was a tongue-in-cheek flight of fancy. He writes: “Let’s look back at the facts. The tea plant made its U.S. landing in Summerville. Summerville was also the site of the first commercial tea plantation, as well as the government’s tea farm. Let’s not forget the article documenting the confederate reunion. I’m going to do it. In regards to Summerville’s role in the great Southern drink of tea, ice, and sugar, I’m going to step out on a pretty thick limb and say it. Come on and say it with me, Summerville is the birthplace of sweet tea.”
So because Summerville was home to the first big U.S. tea plantation and iced tea wasn’t invented at the 1904 World’s Fair then Summerville must somehow be “the birthplace of sweet tea.”
Like an old episode of I Love Lucy, what seems to have started as innocent fun is now snowballing out of control.
Back in July, the Post and Courier picked up on the story, and its headline declared, “It’s Official: Summerville Birthed Sweet Tea.” Local TV news stations jumped onboard next, with reporters thrusting microphones in pedestrians’ faces and asking, “Did you guys know that Summerville is the birthplace of sweet tea?”
“I did not know that,” the pedestrians say, but now they do and will probably go home and inform their family and friends of their newly learned facts.
Warren Peper, in his Post and Courier column, altered the details from Rizzo’s Azalea story slightly to better fit the narrative, referring to the article about the veterans’ encampment as “a long list of items purchased for a reunion of old soldiers near Summerville in 1890” and noting that “among it are 600 pounds of sugar and 880 gallons of iced tea.”
Peper conveniently positions sugar and iced tea together, though in the original list the sugar is separated from the tea by beans, pickles, and “a wagon load of potatoes.” And the part about the encampment occurring “near Summerville” might be a bit of a stretch, since it actually took place in Nevada, Missouri, a small town not far from the Kansas border.
I do not suspect any untoward motives on anyone’s part. It’s just a case of journalists trying to tell a story in the simplest, most compelling way they can and occasionally getting a few facts wrong. But you can see how our love for a good yarn slowly but surely glosses over any inconvenient details.
And now we have splashy marketing campaigns trumpeting historical fantasies on roadside billboards and a “Sweet Tea” Trolley, of all things.
So what is the real story of sweet tea? Like most tales of food origins, the truth is messier and more uncertain than the fiction.
In Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue (2008), John and Dale Reed dug into the history of iced tea and concluded that it wasn’t exclusively a Southern thing, at least not at first.
Americans have been drinking tea since the colonial era, but regular supplies of ice were hard to come by. That started to change with the rise of the coastwise ice trade in the antebellum era, and it accelerated after the Civil War with the spread of mechanical refrigeration. And somewhere along the line people started using that ice to cool their tea.
“During the heated summer months,” the Boston Journal declared on July 6, 1868, “there is nothing so invigorating as iced tea.” Just a few weeks later, a syndicated blurb ran in newspapers across the country, announcing, “Iced tea is the latest fashionable drink in Gotham,” and even describing the method used to prepare it: “Sweeten the hot tea to suit your taste; then pour it, spoonful by spoonful, into a tumbler filled with ice.”
In other words, Yankees were drinking sweetened iced tea as far back as the 1860s, two decades before Dr. Shepherd plucked his first tea leaf in Summerville.
Before long, recipes for iced tea started appearing in cookbooks all over the country. In Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1879), Marion Cabell Tyree published what might be the first true iced tea recipe to see print: fill a goblet with ice, put two teaspoons of granulated sugar in it, and pour in hot green tea. She recommends adding a squeeze of lemon, too.
Iced tea recipes are rife in cookbooks from the 1880s and 1890s, and most of them — even those published in the North — advise adding sugar. The first edition of Fannie Farmer’s famous Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896), for instance, instructs one to make hot tea and then, “Strain into glasses one-third filled with cracked ice. Sweeten to taste.”
The Rise of Sweet Tea
Sweetened tea isn’t the same thing as sweet tea. When we say “sweet tea” today, we’re talking about that now-ritual Southern way of saturating large quantities of tea with sugar while it’s still hot and then cooling and serving it over ice instead of letting each imbiber sweeten to taste at the time of serving. So when did this peculiarly Southern practice come about?
On that point, the historical record is murkier. For most of the 20th century, when the phrase “sweet tea” appeared in books and newspapers, it was typically in stories about travelers’ being served cups of hot, sweet tea in China or the Middle East. I have so far failed to turn up any pre-World War II recipes for making pre-sweetened iced tea.
There are a few close approximations. 200 Years of Charleston Cooking (1930) includes several recipes for “Dixie Tea,” “Carolina Mint Tea”, and “Russian Tea” that are well-sweetened with simple syrup made from large quantities of sugar. But each recipe also includes plenty of fresh orange and lemon juices, and they seem more like non-alcoholic punches than ordinary sweet tea.
In Southern Cooking (1928), Mrs. S. R. Dull, a Georgia native, mentions pre-sweetening tea, but she seems to come down against the practice: “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.”
In other words, Southerners initially seem to have taken their iced tea sweetened or unsweetened according to their individual tastes, and it seems to have been that way until surprisingly recently.
A few weeks ago, the topic of sweet tea came when I was talking to a friend at an outdoor beach party in, of all places, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He surprised me by declaring that he believed the whole Southern trope of pitchers of sweet tea was a totally recent invention.
This gentleman grew up in South Carolina and couldn’t ever remember anyone in his family serving pre-sweetened tea. Instead, everyone added their own sugar to a glass of cold tea and stirred like mad, producing a slightly sweetened glass of tea with a thick layer of sludgy, half-melted sugar at the bottom.
This jibes with my own memory of the long-handled teaspoons and the sugar bowls or little paper packets of granulated sugar that were frequently found on tables during my own South Carolina youth.
I ran the notion by Dale Reed, who knows more about iced tea than anyone else I’ve encountered, and she admitted I might be right. “That’s how we remember it from the 1950s,” her husband John added in an email (they both grew up in Tennessee). “And there’s no other explanation for those ubiquitous spoons.”
But my own father, who grew up in tiny West Point on the Georgia-Alabama border, insists that from his earliest memories his mother made sweet tea by pouring the hot, newly steeped liquid over plenty of sugar in a big glass jar. Indeed, until he headed up north to get his degree at Davidson College, he had no idea you could serve it any other way.
So, I’ve started buttonholing every Southerner over the age of 50 whom I meet and pestering them about their memories of iced tea during their youth. So far, my wildly unscientific survey indicates that as late as the 1970s, there was great variation in the South on whether you served tea pre-sweetened or not. And, if you mapped the people who declare unambiguously that tea was always served sweet, they tend to cluster in Alabama and south Georgia.
And so, I’ve concocted what I’m calling the Alabama-Georgia Sweet Tea Hypothesis, which goes like this: sometime around World War II, it became a common practice in the Deep South to get the jump on the sweetening process by dissolving a load of sugar in hot, freshly brewed tea and then cooling it and serving it over ice.
This practice spread in a slow, scattershot way through the rest of the South until the 1980s when a sudden acceleration made “sweet tea” almost universal on Southern tables — and, in the process, turned “sweet tea” into not only a commonly used term but an emblem of what it meant to be a Southerner — and something that Yankees emphatically didn’t understand.
By 1989, Kathy Petty, a columnist for the Augusta Chronicle, was joking that “getting a glass of sweet iced tea above the Mason-Dixon line is about as likely as finding a reactor pipe at SRP [Savannah River Plant] without a crack in it.” Others dubbed it “the house wine of the South.” In 2003, a Georgia legislator sponsored a bill making it a misdemeanor of “a high and aggravated nature” for any restaurant that served iced tea to not offer it sweet. This was introduced around April 1st, and the legislator later declared it was meant as a joke, but I’m not totally convinced about that.
I will admit that the story of sweet tea, so far, is still as cloudy as a pitcher that’s been chilled too quickly, and I’m hoping to hear from as many people as I can to keep teasing out more data points. One thing seems certain, though: as much as I would love to be able to claim that sweet tea is a Lowcountry creation, it just doesn’t seem to be the case.
There’s a cautionary tale here, too. An ever-creeping pan-Southernism is obscuring what were once vibrant, diverse culinary traditions in different parts of the South, replacing them with a homogenous, aw-shucks blanket of cornbread, fried chicken, biscuits, and sweet tea.
The Lowcountry is the birthplace of Hoppin’ John, Charleston Light Dragoon Punch, she crab soup, chicken bog, benne wafers, Frogmore stew, and, yes, even shrimp and grits. And that seems to be enough of a legacy without our having to create a sweet tea trail, too.