Tea Talk

A quick history of the Southern staple.

Scherer, Jim StockFood

tea

Few food items are as traditionally Virginian as iced tea. 

One of the earliest mentions of iced tea was in a Richmond advertisement from 1856. A year later, the Saturday Evening Post advocated “tea made strong, well sweetened … and the whole mixture cooled in an ice chest.” However, presweetening didn’t catch on at first; iced tea was served with lemon and sugar on the side—and mostly in the Northeast, where ice was more available. According to writer Robert Moss, “It wasn’t until electric iceboxes became common, late 1920s and early 1930s, that Southerners finally had what they needed to enjoy iced beverages.”

Although presweetened tea was mentioned in a Georgia cookbook in 1928, it wasn’t widespread until the 1980s, and it wasn’t identified as “Southern” until the early 2000s. Turns out sweet tea is a relatively new Southern tradition!

Sweet Tea Tips

  • The magic ratio: Use two tea bags and ¼ cup sugar per quart of water.
  • Dissolve the sugar in warm water before adding ice. 
  • To smooth out the tannins in the tea, add a small pinch of baking soda to the sugar.
  • Don’t steep longer than 10 minutes or squeeze the bags; the tea will get bitter and tannic. 
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