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Posted: October 3, 2010 12:00 a.m.

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I’m Not from Here, but love my sweet tea

Friends, I was making a pitcher of sweet tea this morning for the Hallman’s. This is usually the teenager’s job, but we don’t sit well in the absence of sweet tea in the Hallman house, so sometimes, I have to make it. We have a very particular way of making our tea and it’s something I know each of my girls will take with them into their own grown-up lives. Standing in my kitchen, making sweet tea got me thinking about the time my birthright slipped away and my own unique Southern heritage was born.

I was having supper a few years back with a group of folks whose accents had them from places otherwise known as "Not from Here." We were all attending the same conference in the hopes to return to our communities ready to help build strong families. This swanky Savannah restaurant had me right on the river and I was feeling mighty fine about our big old table, the exposed brick walls of the historic building, and the starched white aprons of the smiling staff. Everything was a picture perfect postcard of Southern hospitality until I ordered my drink.

I asked for sweet tea the way we do here. We say it almost as if we don’t have to really, because what other beverage would a Southerner drink with supper even if that Southerner is in a big old fancy restaurant? The waiter, whose accent told me not only was he born and raised in Savannah, but his mama and his daddy’s people were too, looked at me with what I know had to be shame in his eye and said, "We don’t have sweet tea, will un-sweet do?"

The hell you say?

No, that’s what I said. Out loud. Right there in that big old fancy restaurant along the river in Savannah. Every person at my table turned and looked at me, appalled by my lack of decorum. The man next to me who wore a jacket not meant for Southern humidity, one he wouldn’t remove even for supper, said, "I bet they have some sugar. You can sweeten it yourself."

Now, I’m sure that man meant to be helpful, but I looked around the table, searching out My People who would understand how shocked and appalled we all should be that a restaurant in Savannah did not have sweet tea brewing by the barrel. I found them, of course, but it was the utter confusion of those Not from Here folks that just got me to laughing.

I explained to them all that we’d have a third tap at the kitchen sink just for sweet tea if we could. You just don’t add sugar to un-sweet tea and make it sweet. That’s not how it happens. Those people were mystified, hooked; leaning in and wanting to know more. I found myself almost lovingly describing the process of making sweat tea to folks who had been deprived of this truly Southern elixir their whole lives.

I have to disclose to y’all now, just as I had to then, that I’m originally Not from Here too. All the McAfee’s are not only Not From Here, we’re from New Jersey. (FYI: If you’re born in New Jersey and raised in Alabama, that’s like telling people you’re from Mars.) I didn’t grow up drinking sweet tea by the gallon. My mother never once whipped up a mess o’ grits or a plate of center biscuits or any other uniquely wonderful Southern delicacy. I might have grown up in Alabama, but I was planted in a decidedly Northern household.

So, there I was in Savannah, explaining the steps to making sweet tea to a captive audience. The trick, I assured them, was not just having a pot dedicated to the Making of Sweet Tea, but also in the Art of Dissolving the Sugar in the still hot tea. I used my hands and acted out the act of straining all the liquid from the bags and stirring in the sugar. Every word brought me closer to understanding that the South had adopted me at some point in my journey. I realized it was by some mutual and decidedly happy agreement that I had become a Southerner.

As I’m having this geographical epiphany, friends, and weaving this love story of sweet tea, the waiter has returned with our drinks. He hesitantly placed a glass of unsweet tea in front of me and a delicate little plate with packets of sweeteners all laid out in a pretty fan of pink, yellow, and white. The helpful man beside me who desperately needed a lesson in seersucker accoutrement took up that dainty glass of unholy tea and announced to the group, "As God as my witness, I will never drink unsweet tea again!"

The Scarlett I always knew was deep down inside could not have said it better.

Beth McAfee-Hallman lives in Covington and can be e-mailed at mamabee@onefabulousmama.com.

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