I remember the first time someone asked me if I wanted regular tea or sweet tea. I was a teenager on vacation with my parents in North Carolina. I thought the best thing that would happen to me that week was endless basking in the sun and swimming in the ocean. Who knew that a counter person working the register at McDonald’s could bring such happiness to a Northerner from Ohio? Even better, the delicious beverage was served at every restaurant we visited during that trip. My family had discovered sweet tea and drank it by the gallons that week. We even purchased large cups of sweet tea to drink on the way home. The restaurant wasn’t out of sight before it was consumed.
Flash forward a couple of years to the advent of sweet tea reaching McDonald’s in Ohio and other restaurants as well. We Northerners were elated, but we had a few things to learn: keep your sweet tea refrigerated so it doesn’t grow bacteria and don’t try to pass off that junk in the beverage machines as sweet tea.
All this to say that sweet tea factored in to my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, the first time John met Sam Feldman and Claude Willoughby at the University of Maryland. John had been invited to visit Sam’s home along with Claude. While he instantly liked amiable worrier, Sam, John’s initial opinion of Claude was reserved at best. Claude sneaked bourbon into the sweet tea without John’s knowledge. When John took a large swallow, he choked on the presence of the strong alcohol much to Claude’s entertainment. The conversation that followed would either make or break their tentative relationship.
There are many recipes out there for sweet tea and the history is quite enjoyable to read. I had no idea that iced green tea was the original favorite. The following recipe is the one I had in mind when I wrote the above-mentioned scene. Of course, you can always put a splash of bourbon in yours; just remember to warn your guests first.
¾ c sugar (I use raw)
¾ c water
Place the sugar and water in a saucepan, stir thoroughly, and bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil the mixture for seven minutes, stirring occasionally. Keep an eye on the heat so the syrup doesn’t scorch. You should attain a gentle, rolling boil. Remove from the heat, and set aside to cool.
10 cups water, divided
6 regular-sized tea black tea bags
1 pinch baking soda
Lemon slices (optional)
In another saucepan, bring three cups of water to a boil. Remove the pot from the range and place on a trivet. Add tea bags and baking soda, and steep for six minutes. Do not squeeze the tea bags when removing. Add the simple syrup and stir. Allow to cool to room temperature.
When the tea/syrup mixture has cooled, pour into a pitcher and add the remaining seven of cups water. Serve over ice with lemon slices if desired.