Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Y'all, it's not easy to live as an unsweetened outsider in a culture where sweet tea loyalties flow strong and thick as the Mississippi River. For years I'd suffered the embarrassment of gawking stares and double takes at my childhood preference for the stuff servers would dubiously describe as 'the stuff that isn't done yet?!" As a young child I'd once baffled my friend's mom when we'd finished supper and my glass was just as full as when we'd started. All this fuss perplexed me in my youth, but now that I'm pushing 40 I get it (and I am so, so sorry Mrs. Sharon!).
While now you'll find sweet tea at any given gas station, the 4-ingredient beverage's Southern roots aren't so humble. We all remember the story of Americans revolting against tea taxes, but it's easy to forget that ice isn't exactly part of the natural landscape for most of the South. The first commercial ice machine hit New Orleans in 1868, and people were eager, though maybe not wealthy enough, to bring ice into their homes and ice boxes. This ice would be dutifully, carefully chipped away at instead of dispensed at will from a refrigerator door.
The same restraint was shown towards sugar. The sweet stuff was such a luxury item it was sold as art and food. Sugar was pressed into a sugarloaf for the peasants and elaborate bricks with relief artwork for the elites. Just as ice, the sugar would be chipped or shaved, stretching out its use.
The South has obviously (and thankfully!) moved past the days of ice as a status symbol, but what remains is an idea- that glassful of liquid gold is the definition of Southern hospitality, all at once gracious, generous, and just a little bougie. To turn down a house's sweet tea is to reject a welcome to join our shared cultural state of mind- sit a minute, talk awhile, "Can I make you a sandwich?'
This sweet tea syrup is my making amends for all the glasses I'd left full at dinner tables. It's a super simple, fancy-ass, pull-it-all-together syrup you'll find yourself eating with a spoon from the pot. Drizzling this liquid gold over a lemon snowball (recipe below) brings an Arnold Palmer to a whole new level. And if you've got leftovers, I've got suggestions:
Drizzle over grilled fruit, lemon squares, or strawberry ice cream
For a 15 minute dessert, Thinly slice some peaches , toss in a pinch of salt and 2 T brown sugar. Set your oven rack on the middle of the oven and set broiler to low. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Tear apart an angel food cake and arrange on sheet, top with peaches. Broil 5-10 min, or until peaches are caramelized and cake is toasted. Top with sweet tea syrup, cashews, and fresh mint.
For a Little Palermo, combine 4 oz. Limoncello, 1 T lemon juice, and 1 T Sweet Tea Syrup in a cocktail shaker. Fill a highball glass with ice. Pour the Limoncello and mineral water over the ice simultaneously. Garnish with lemon zest curls and mint or basil.
Sweet Tea Syrup
1 cup water
4 extra-large tea bags
2 cups light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Bring water to simmer. Add sugar and salt, stir to combine, and continue to simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the syrup thickly coats the back of a spoon. Turn off heat and add tea bags. Allow bags to steep for 30 minutes. Remove tea bags and pour syrup into a glass jar. Store in the refrigerator.
4 cups water
1 1/4 cups white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 T vodka
Bring water to a boil. Add sugar and salt then stir until dissolved. Add the zest and juice of the lemons and the vodka. Transfer to a metal container (like a steam tray or cake pan) and allow to cool for 30 minutes before covering and moving to the refrigerator for 1 hour. Transfer to the freezer. Scrape the pan with a fork every 30 minutes or so until frozen. When ready to serve, scrape a fork along the top for fluffy, delicate ice. Top with sweet tea syrup.