SEASON TO TASTE
(my monthly food column for Heartland Women)
Between the years of 1986-2003, we experienced seven hurricanes where I lived in North Carolina. Even 60 miles from the coast, we had one Category 5, one 4, four 3’s and a 1. The damage was always significant and the clean up was backbreaking, especially in the heat and humidity that always followed the storm. I came to dread June 1st, the official beginning of hurricane season, and only breathed a sigh of relief when November 30th rolled around.
Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, was a real doozy for the whole coastal plain region. As luck would have it, we woke up on the wrong side of that hurricane’s rotation and suffered devastating flooding on top of the deadly wind damage. I say we woke up because, in my experience, hurricanes always hit hardest at night. Imagine 10-12 hours of wind and rain like we had here on May 8th. All night long you could hear things breaking, falling, and blowing around, but the extent of the damage was unknown until daylight revealed giant hardwoods and towering pines strewn about like pick-up sticks. After Floyd, I threatened to leave town at the slightest hint of a hurricane forming anywhere in the Atlantic.
When we announced to our NC friends that we were moving back to Illinois, one of the most frequent responses was genuine concern for the safety our lives in Tornado Alley. I assured them that I was a Midwest-born-and-bred veteran of many hours spent hunkering-down in my family’s basement, always with a few of our concrete-slab-house neighbors, waiting for tornadoes that fortunately never materialized. I assured them that our new home also had a basement, something most homes in NC’s coastal plain do not! And then I just had to remind them the worst tornado I’d ever known happened just up the road in Raleigh NC! With no hurricanes in the Midwest, I figured we were actually trading down on the dangerous weather phenomenon scale.
So with North Carolina fading in my rear view mirror, there were lots of things I knew I would miss during the summer months—the beach, eastern North Carolina barbecue and sweet tea—but definitely not hurricanes! I was certain I had seen my last hurricane as we headed 803 miles inland. I checked hurricanes off my “been there, done that” list.
Oh, how wrong I was! The storm we had on May 8th, in our little corner of Southern Illinois, was every bit like those I saw in North Carolina. Forget about calling it a mesoscale convective vortex or a derecho. Let’s not quibble over whether the darn thing formed over land or water! We had hurricane force winds, torrential rain, the telltale circular motion of the weather pattern, and the calm of the eye passing over us. Shingles flew off. Signs blew down. Torrential rain saturated the ground. Trees broke in half or fell flat on houses. So if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck . . . then you’d better duck—it’s a hurricane!
In fact, about all we missed of a traditional coastal hurricane were the endless days of warnings on The Weather Channel, allowing everyone and his brother the time needed to strip store shelves of milk, bread, jugs of water and batteries. Oh yeah, and we never got to see Jim Cantore in his rain-soaked Weather Channel parka, being blown down Highway 13, while breathlessly broadcasting live for all the world to see. Everyone, that is, except the people actually in the storm, who don’t have electricity to watch TV.
Looking back now, I’ll confess there was a warning sign predicting our inland hurricane that I should have been able to read. In fact, that’s sort of what I was going to write about this month anyway. I had been making notes to write about the welcome introduction of sweet tea in Southern Illinois eating establishments over the past year or so. I guess I was so delighted to discover “the house wine of the South” had come this far inland, that I was distracted from the universal truth it foretold. Crazy things happen when the natural order of things is disturbed. You see, I should have known if sweet tea comes to Southern Illinois, could hurricanes be far behind?
One thing you learn right away in the heat and humidity of hurricane country is that while iced tea is refreshing, sweet tea has miraculous powers. It’s the perfect beverage to soothe your jangled nerves after the trauma of a big weather event, or a long day of chopping wood. The other thing you need to know is that iced tea can be served two ways—unsweet and sweet. But in the South they just assume you want it sweet, unless you specifically ask for unsweet. When we came back to the Midwest, I had to laugh at my husband always ordering “unsweet” tea in restaurants. He got a funny look every time because he just couldn’t shake the habit of 25 years.
Sweet tea is a cornerstone of Southern hospitality. In a place where strangers are greeted as “shug” and “hon” and your mother always tells you to “give me some sugar” when she wants a kiss, and “be sweet” anytime you leave home, you would expect nothing less. The reputations of many fine Southern cooks and popular dining establishments have been made by their special iced tea brew—a clear, dark amber liquid, sweetened to the viscosity of glucose, poured over ice and served with a lemon wedge or a hint of mint. I’ll admit that I’ve missed sweet tea since I left NC. It is just a part of the natural order of southern life.
My intention this month was to tell you how to make sweet tea, the real Southern way, just in case you haven’t had the real thing before. The authenticity of the local restaurant versions often falls short, probably because it has been manufactured as sweet tea. There may be as many ways to make it as there are cooks in Carolina, but to be authentic Southern-style sweet tea it must be homemade, the sugar added while the tea is warm, and then poured over lots and lots of ice. And it must be made in small batches with a recipe from someone’s mama or grandmama. That’s the secret!
It’s a secret we never knew when I was growing up. In my family, sometime in our teens we graduated from milk to iced tea with our meals. We always added sugar to the glass after it was filled with ice and tea, so it never completely dissolved. In an effort to make it extra sweet, my brothers would fill the glass half full of sugar and then stir and stir. The result was a layer of sugar sludge in the bottom of the glass, which they would eat with a spoon after they finished the tea. Maybe that’s why my mother never served dessert!
Can’t you just see that scene playing out long ago in a sultry Southern dining room? Some poor mama cooked all day over a hot stove in sweltering heat and stifling humidity. She spread the table with all manner of Southern comfort food, only to sit down to a cacophony of spoons clattering against tea glasses and fraying her last nerve. She makes a note to herself, and from that day forward, the tea arrives at the table with enough sugar already dissolved in it satisfy every sweet tooth, requiring only the addition of the silent squeeze of a tart lemon to enhance the taste. Eureka! And the rest, as they say, is history.
Iced tea, including sweet tea, is regularly served year round in more and more places outside the South. But we are a diverse country and that’s not the only iced beverage we enjoy. Drinks like Chai tea are also popular and fun for a change. We love fruit flavors like lemonade. Some of us enjoy delicious beverages that add some spirits to tea or tea-like mixtures. There’s even a “hurricane” you might actually enjoy in this list of recipes for June.
Just like everything else, people have their own favorite brands of tea. Across the South, Luzianne is recognized as the favorite for iced tea, but Lipton is the world’s most popular tea and Tetley is also popular. I’m partial to Red Rose tea, either sweet or unsweet. Another one of my favorites is Paradise Tea, which is flavored with passion fruit. I have trouble finding both of my favorites around here, so I order them from Amazon. Whatever your brand, remember tea is also rich in antioxidants, so enjoy drinking to your health anytime, not just when hurricanes blow through Southern Illinois.
For us, the storm may be over, but we’ve got enough clean up work to keep us busy all summer. The only thing we need now is some good ol’ North Carolina barbecue. Not that I don’t love Southern Illinois barbecue, because I do, but that Eastern Carolina ‘cue is like no other. And together, sweet tea and barbecue go a long way toward easing the adverse affects of heat, humidity and hurricanes. Thanks to our Southern sisters for sharing the secret restorative powers of their sweet tea. One hurricane is more than enough for us, but we’ll keep the sweet tea flowing. And y’all be sure to send us some of that barbecue next time?
Sweet Tea Secrets
Use one regular size teabag per glass of tea, or one family size for three glasses of tea.
Add more water after the sugar is dissolved, if it is too strong.
Always use fresh water to brew tea and do not refrigerate until tea cools to avoid cloudiness.
Tie the teabags together so they will be easy to remove without tearing. Pour the hot water over the teabags and remove from heat to steep – don’t boil the teabags.
Don’t squeeze the teabags when removing them – makes the tea taste of bitter.
Granulated sugar will not dissolve in a cold glass of iced tea. Add sugar while the tea is still hot or serve tea with a small pitcher of simple syrup.
Infuse mint or lemon flavor in simple syrup before it cools.
Garnish glasses of tea with lemon cut in wedges instead of circles, because they are easier to squeeze.
Freeze lemonade, limeade or orange juice into ice cubes to flavor tea and chill it at the same time.
Serve tea in tall glasses or canning jars, poured from a big glass pitcher for a lovely presentation.
Southern Sweet Tea
6 regular-size tea bags
1/8 tsp. baking soda (softens the bitter tannins)
2 cups boiling water
1 to 2 cups granulated sugar
6 cups cold water
Place the teabags and baking soda in a 2-cup or larger glass measuring cup or pitcher. Pour the boiling water over the tea. Let steep for 15 minutes and then carefully remove the teabags. Pour the hot tea into a pitcher and add the sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves. Add the cold water and allow to cool completely. Serve over ice, or refrigerate to use later. Garnish with lemon, lime or mint. Makes 2 quarts.
2 c. water
2 c. sugar
Mix water and sugar in a pan and heat just until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat to cool. Store in a jar in the refrigerator to use as a sweetener for tea, lemonade, or iced coffee. Add lemon juice or sprigs of mint while mixture is warm to make flavored simple syrup.
4 family-size tea bags
1 gallon cold water
juice from 1 lemon
Place the tea bags in a 1-gallon container. Add the water.
Place the covered container in the sun for 3 to 4 hours. Add lemon juice. Chill and serve over ice with simple syrup to sweeten to taste.
32 oz. Hawaiian Fruit Punch
1 6-oz. can frozen limeade concentrate, thawed
1 6-oz. can frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
1 1/3 cups light rum
1 1/3 cups dark rum
Stir all ingredients together and serve over ice in a hurricane glass.
The Inland Hurricane
½ gallon Hawaiian Fruit Punch
12 oz. frozen orange juice concentrate
24 oz. passion fruit juice
6 oz. frozen limeade mix
Blend all ingredients with crushed ice and pour into large glasses to serve.