When we moved from the New York City area to semi-rural South Carolina a few years ago, it was an adjustment to say the least. I had to get used to “y’all” instead of “you guys.” Instead of Italian restaurants and all-night diners on every corner there was something called a “meat-and-three,” which is just what it sounds like, and where macaroni and cheese is considered a vegetable. While most folks were friendly, others called me a “blue-coat Yankee” and acted like the War Between the States was not only still going on but that I personally had started it. (While I may be from the North, my family didn’t arrive in America until well into the twentieth century.) And don’t even get me started on discerning the nuances of “Bless your heart!”
Another thing that has a very different meaning here in the Southlands is tea. In most Northern restaurants – and homes for that matter – if you want tea you get a generic teabag in a cup of hot water. In these parts, when you ask simply for “tea” you’re served a big honking glass of pre-sweetened iced tea, otherwise known as sweet tea, otherwise known as Southern table wine. I’ve learned that if you want anything else you have to ask for either “unsweet tea” or “unsweet hot tea.” And you have to speak up quickly.
Once or twice folks have asked me if I know how to fix good tea. I told them sure, and that I particularly like teapots with built-in filters. Needless to say, that comment garnered some rather odd looks. It took me a while to realize that while I was talking about a potful of loose-leaf tea, everyone else’s frame of reference was sweet tea made with teabags.
Of course, I view tea rather differently from most people I know anyway, whether Northern or Southern: I prefer oolongs and Darjeelings and gyokuros, fresh and properly steeped. With the exception, however, of a short-lived British tea room in the next town, nobody around here seems to know that you can actually drink hot tea. Or why you’d want to. Or that dry-leaf tea is available to the public outside of a teabag. And what the heck would you do with it anyway?
Now that I’ve more or less made my peace with sweet tea (although I still don’t drink it except occasionally to be polite), one thing I’ve discovered is that sweet tea is like chocolate chip cookies: Everybody’s mama makes the best there is, you just can’t compare! Some recipes are closely guarded secrets, while other folks spend hours debating the best brand of tea (usually Luzianne), how long to let it steep, what kind of sugar to use (Dixie Crystals of course) and if you should put it in before or after you take out the teabags, and whether it’s better to fix tea in a pitcher or a big glass jar.
I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut during these discussions. I don’t want to embarrass myself. Anyway, every Southerner already knows that Northerners don’t know anything about good tea.
[Disclaimer: I love living here in the Southlands, even if it is a constant learning experience …]
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