The Great Sweet Tea Controversy

sweet-tea-150x150I’ll admit it right up front. I’m not much of a fan of sweet tea. But that’s okay. The many fans of this syrupy variation on black tea don’t really need my approval. What I didn’t realize until recently is that there’s apparently something of a controversy brewing about this concoction that’s said to have got its start somewhere in the American South.

Which is what is the tricky part – determining exactly where sweet tea did originate. As the Charleston City Paper recently noted, “the Greater Summerville/Dorchester County Chamber of Commerce officially launched the Sweet Tea Trail with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.” This matters to the world at large because Summerville has taken to claiming itself as The Birthplace of Sweet Tea, has trademarked this catchy phrase and even begun advertising itself as such.

What the article goes on to note, citing a few earlier articles that are part and parcel of said controversy, is that this claim is apparently not true. Tea was actually grown in Summerville between 1888 and 1915 (and is grown in the Charleston area to this day) but the claim that tea was first iced there in 1890 at a reunion of Confederate veterans there doesn’t work for everyone.

After addressing the alleged deficiencies of the claims for Summerville, the author of the article goes on to speculate on where sweet tea might have actually originated. He cites a 2008 book called Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, whose authors found accounts of something resembling sweet tea as far back as 1868 – and in the North, if you can imagine such a thing.

After that this notion apparently started to take hold and, as the article notes, “iced tea recipes are rife in cookbooks from the 1880s and 1890s,” many of which recipes advocated adding sugar to the mix. However, those who are fond of picking nits might note that sweetened iced tea is not quite the same as sweet tea, the latter of which is prepared in a very specific manner.

All of which goes on at a little more length and in a little more detail than yours truly cares to know about, especially given that this is a drink I find mildly appalling. But if you’re interested in all of the nitty-gritty details I’d encourage you to take a look at the article.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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