There is no beverage on Earth that has the historical or cultural significance as tea. This simple drink prepared from steeping the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant is the most consumed beverage in the world after water. It’s fair to say that if there were to be an official drink of planet Earth, most people, including all those whom have passed, would attest that, no doubt, tea would be it.
Though, perhaps, that is where the universal agreement would stop. Not everyone agrees on the best way to enjoy it.
The Roots of Iced Tea
To put a finger on the precise time and place iced tea was first invented is a bit of a mystery, and one that will likely never be solved. It is probable, just as with other types of food and drink, that it was invented in multiple locations at multiple times, though never documented, therefore leaving us only with myth and legend as to how it first came to be.
The legend of iced tea’s beginnings take place at the 1904 World’s Fair where India Tea Commissioner Richard Blechynden, upon discovery that hot tea doesn’t quite sell on a hot day, decides to sell it chilled instead. As the story goes, he sold out and the tourists that partook in his “invention” returned home to make their own versions—and it is these versions that have been passed down to become our contemporary view of iced tea.
While the story of Blechynden is disputed by some historians and tea enthusiasts—supposedly there is no record of him at the 1904 World’s Fair—one fact remains undisputed: The United States, and primarily the South, is the place where iced tea became a pastime and way of life.
Tea in the American South
Iced tea is the house wine of the South. — From the motion picture, Steel Magnolias
Iced tea in the American South is as much a stereotype as English tea is in the U.K. It is the drink of choice wherever you might find fried chicken, collard greens, mac ‘n’ cheese, pecan pie and family all gathered around a table. It symbolizes, in liquid form, a certain brand of kindness known quite simply as southern hospitality.
It is the subject of many a debate among Americans what constitutes the perfect iced tea. In the South it is widely consumed with lots of sugar, although the degree of sweetness varies from extremely sweet to slightly sweet. In regions outside the South, iced tea is largely drank with no sugar at all, or “unsweet”.
Flowing in the veins of greatness
Iced tea is such a staple of life in the American South and so common that it is likely to have been witness to and even part of great events to have taken place there, flowing in the veins of greatness, per se.
Perhaps iced tea was there when a young Elvis Presley gave the world “That’s All Right” at his Sun Records recording session.
Perhaps it was in the veins of William Faulkner, serving as fuel for those dark, wee-hour writing sessions where the words to As I Lay Dying were penned.
One could say it is quite likely that iced tea was in the veins of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he and others tolerated the aggressive and violent acts of resistors as they marched the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery.
And if delta bluesman Robert Johnson really did run across the devil down at the crossroads in the Mississippi Delta, I’d bet he cooled down afterward with a glass of iced tea.
The American South doesn’t just embrace iced tea but inherently places it among the most notable attributes of being southern.
Iced tea is comfort. It is representative of home and family. To some, iced tea might be the antithesis of English Tea but we don’t quite see it this way. Sweet Sally embraces tea in all the many ways it can be enjoyed. Because it is the tea itself that is sacred, not whether it is sweet, unsweet, hot or cold.