by Jefferson Currie
My mama, Jerri, doesn’t really like ice tea much (I know that most spell it iced tea, but with that d and t next to each other, that’s not really what it sounds like), and I realize that to some southerners that is a kind of sacrilege, so it always struck me as a loving gesture that she would make a new batch for her family every time the pitcher in the refrigerator ran low. I like ice tea, but I only truly love my mama’s ice tea; instead of the super sugary sweet drink confection that is served up in just about every eating establishment in the south, whether the food is southern, soul, country, fast, American, Thai, Indian, Ethiopian or Greek, my mama’s tea just ain’t that sweet. According to my mama, her tea is like Big Mama’s (my grandmother), who made it that way because my granddaddy, Joe, didn’t like it with too much sugar.
It strikes me that my mama has always seemed to be a bit critical of sugar, though. She wouldn’t let us eat any of those “sugar” cereals with the cartoon character commercials, and my cousin’s still talk about mama’s weak Kool-Aid that was maybe half strength and barely sweet. I like to think that this vendetta against sugar had something to do with my brother Jeremy. By the time he was old enough to drink off the bottle, if you gave Jeremy sugar in any form, you would probably want to either lock him in his room or take him outside for massive doses of strenuous activity, because he seemed to embrace and turn a sugar rush into a series of “Lord, what is he doing?” moments. One time he stuck a wire into a light socket and blamed it on a rogue match; another time he cut a U-shaped swath of hair out of the front of his head and blamed in on rogue barbers. But, his constant source for amusement was my brother Jason, whom he playfully and mischievously bothered daily, and every now and then left a scar for Jason to remember him by. It’s probably good that mama’s tea wasn’t too sweet, or instead of the Marine Corps, Jeremy could have ended up somewhere a lot more restrictive.
I drink mama’s tea straight up, no lemon, preferably with crushed ice, though the only way I really like to drink tea out in the world is with a bit of lemon, so my sugar-adverse mouth can stand it. I don’t take offense at those who want their tea so full of granulated sugar that it globs instead of pours, but I’ll stick with a subtlety sweet swallow of mama’s glass of Luzianne.
By now, you might be wondering how my mama makes her tea. Well, for those of you who want to try it out, we spent some time in the kitchen the other night, and here’s the closest approximation to the recipe that I could put together:
Two quart pot (Mama uses an old aluminum pot, and my whole life it has always been an old aluminum pot, and I could testify to the fact that she told me that it tastes better made in aluminum, but the other night she said that most of the reason is that the tea stains pots bad and she didn’t want to mess up a good pot. And it has to be the right size.)
Tap Water (Mama has an artesian well with sweet, good water, but you can use city or county water, although the taste of the water will affect the taste of the tea.)
Four large sized Luzianne tea bags (Years ago, people just made ice tea from loose tea and strained the tea leaves out. Nowadays we have regular tea bags and large tea bags and gallon size tea bags. My daddy’s mama used Lipton tea; Mama uses Luzianne. Mama uses the large family sized bags and she usually takes the staple and tag off so they don’t make it taste funny.)
Big Cooking Spoon (Mama uses a big stainless steel serving spoon that is deep enough to taste a little bit to make sure it’s good.)
Gallon sized container (There have been many iterations of the tea pitcher over the years, and the current one is one of my favorites. Clear plastic, so you can see that golden brown color gleaming when you open the refrigerator, with a burgundy top that spins around with two openings, one big and the other slotted. For some reason we always use the slotted side.)
Sugar (Just regular granulated white sugar is what mama uses. I know folks use brown sugar and maple syrup and honey and even yucca syrup these days, but we just keep using the regular granulated sugar that’s packed in rectangular shaped paper.)
Baking Soda (Okay, so I thought that this was some kind of traditional thing that mama did, and I have heard of other people using baking soda, but not much. It turns out, mama says she just started making tea a different way than her mama or my daddy’s mama and she liked putting baking soda in the tea to darken it a bit and take the bitterness out.)
Run water into the two quart pot until it is about ¾ or more filled with water, and take the pot to the stove. Cut the burner on high. Remove the staple and tag from 4 teabags and place them in the pot and wait until the tea just starts to boil.
While you wait, put about ½ to 2/3 of a cup of sugar into the tea pitcher and take the pitcher and set it in the kitchen sink with the big spoon in the pitcher.
Still waiting for the tea to boil….
When the tea starts to boil, remove from heat and sprinkle some baking soda in the pot (this will cause the tea to foam up a bit due to the addition of the baking soda, which is a base to the tea, which is an acid.)
Take the teapot to the sink and, using the spoon to keep the bags in the pot, pour the tea into the pitcher. Stir the pot with the spoon to mix the tea with the sugar. Fill the pot, with the tea bags still in the pot, with cold water and pour the liquid into the pitcher. Repeat this step until the pitcher is full.
Stir the tea in the pitcher to make sure the sugar is mixed in well, and put the warm pitcher of tea in the refrigerator.
Using crushed ice or cubed ice, make a glass of tea. Remember, the tea is still warm, so, remember to use more ice.
Jefferson Currie II is a folklorist currently working with the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park in Wilson, NC. Virtually all of his family is from southeastern North Carolina. His mama is Lumbee and her family (and these tea traditions) hail from Robeson and Scotland counties.