Is sweet tea a Texas thing, or not? The answer to that question seems to depend on who you ask, what part of Texas they are from, how old they are, and where their family came from before they got here.
Before we go on, let’s get some definitions out of the way: by sweet tea, we mean the stuff South that arrives at the table with the sugar, simple syrup, or even high-fructose corn syrup pre-stirred in while the brew is still hot, in order to maximize the sweetness. “Sweetened” tea is the stuff to which you add and stir in sugar/Splenda/Sweet n’ Low yourself from the little packets provided to you after the tea has been iced.
I put the question to selected experts, my Facebook feed, and searched a few Texas message boards, and the level of vitriol in the discussion surprised me. Some Texans deem sweet tea as Texan as “Willie Nelson and jackalopes,” and anyone who disagrees is a Yankee or a Californian.
That group is a minority, though. By and large, most of the Texans I communicated with deem “the house wine of the South” an abomination, a hell-broth from Honey-Booboo-land, an invasive concoction that has quietly (and only recently) infiltrated Texas from Old Dixie much like fire ants, NASCAR, and SEC football culture. (In return, we’ve sent them armadillos, Willie Nelson and Tex-Mex cuisine. Talk about a trade imbalance.)
Here is a sampling of the responses to my Facebook query and email interviews:
That sweet tea is newfangled BS. I’m native Texan and I never heard of “sweet tea” as an option until about 2006 or so. Around Katrina I think. Before that you just ordered tea and added your own damn sugar. – Maureen Spector, El Paso / Houston
I can’t abide sweet tea. I should know, but I don’t, whether the majority in the Panhandle like it sweet or unsweet. I do know that it’s served unsweetened there and you are free to adulterate it as you please. – Andy Williams, now of Houston
West Texas was definitely not sweet tea country when I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s. In my recollection it was rarely offered as a pre-made option. I believe more Lubbock restaurants offering both now than in decades past. My guess is it’s driven by southern-based chain restaurants that have spread across the southwest.
Most Lubbock eateries still only serve it unsweet and let you sweeten your own. When I lived in the South in the 80’s, you were normally asked which one you wanted, though some served sweet as the default unless you stipulated otherwise.
It was served unsweet at my home growing up, but I had to add sugar to enjoy it as a child. I still drink it both ways. – Anonymous Texas Monthly restaurant reviewer, Lubbock
Born and reared in Dallas with most of my relatives in Shreveport, La., I don’t ever remember drinking sweet tea until I moved to Florida/Georgia in 1977, and the tea there was so sweet it would make your teeth hurt while drinking it. – Texas Monthly’s R.G. Ratcliffe, Dallas
Growing up in Dallas, I never even heard of sweet tea, just saw folks dumping sugar in their iced tea by the truckload. It just sank to the bottom of the glass, undissolved. — Anonymous
When people ask me for sweet tea, I remind them they are in the city. – LJ, Houston
Sweet tea is the Devil’s invention that was imported from Georgia. Dreadful s***. — Christopher Higham, Houston.
So, sweet tea was not regularly consumed in the Panhandle, Far West Texas, the South Plains, Houston, South Texas, or Dallas. Respondents from northeast Texas were the sole exceptions to the unsweetened rule. Dan Alexander, of Marshall, wrote: “Here in the sticks tea is as sweet as Tupelo honey. The Sweet Tea zone also overlays the deep-fry-every-damn-thing Southern Cookin’ Obesity region.”
So it seems that Texas’s Sweet Tea Line follows the stereotype that East Texas culture closely aligns with the Deep South, most specifically with regard to religion. Sweet tea maps tend to be easy to overlay with those showing Baptist majorities, which brings up a point. Baptists are, at least if they obey their preachers, teetotalers. Unlike drinkers, teetotalers tend to have sweet teeth. Humans are hard-wired to crave sugar, and wet folks (Catholics, Whiskeypalians, the godless, etc.) tend to get plenty from booze. The very idea of a flagon of pre-brewed sweet tea seems revolting to the cocktail-before-dinner-and-wine-with set.
There’s also something to Dan Alexander’s theory that sweet tea overlays the fried food zone. East of I-45, pairing a glass of sweet tea with a platter of fried catfish, hush puppies, slaw and fries is as natural as pairing brisket, beans, and potato salad with Dr Pepper is to the west. (This being Texas, nothing is ever that simple, as in some parts of East Texas, you would also be eating ‘cue and pairing it with Big Red instead of DP or sweet tea.)
In that way, Texas is like Virginia, another state on the fringes of what used to be Dixie. Prior to 2008, when McDonald’s took sweet tea national, you could get a handle on the essential Southerness of a place by whether or not it was an option. Culinary wonks mapped the Old Dominion’s Sweet Tea Line back then, and it showed the northern half of the state to be the Sugar-It-Yourself Zone, while the southern half of the state offered pre-brewed sweet tea.
You could probably draw a similar bright line across Florida, albeit with the sweet crowd to the north of Tampa and Orlando and the unsweetened bunch to the South. According to my Facebook survey, there is a similar line in Louisiana, with the sweet bunch in Protestant north and central Louisiana and the unsweet in the Cajun lands. In traveling through Arkansas, Houstonian Andrea Greer noted that there were two dispensers of unsweetened tea at the Texarkana location of Jake’s BBQ. Deeper in-state, at another Jake’s in Bill Clinton’s hometown of Hope, that ratio was reversed.
A team of medical professionals and scientists at East Carolina University studied sweet tea’s history, prevalence in Southern folkways, and rapid spread to other regions. Texans are right to be wary of the stuff: The ECU researchers believe sweet tea’s role in the Deep South’s “diabesity” epidemic is not small: where sweet tea is consumed most freely, both diabetes and obesity are most prevalent.
According to the study, the “Sweet Tea Belt” takes in all or parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. (Note the omission of Texas, and Oklahoma too.) That same area, the study notes, is also referred to as “as the stroke belt or stroke alley.”
No scholarly history of sweet tea has yet been written, but East Carolina University anthropology professor Holly Mathews theorizes that, like secession and thus the Civil War, sweet tea was born in South Carolina,today the only place in America where tea is grown commercially, in Colonial times. South Carolina was also closely aligned with British Caribbean sugar colonies; indeed, the Palmetto State was founded by immigrants and slaves from Barbados, so they were rolling in the white stuff. Back in the powdered wig days, sweet tea was primarily a mixer for strong drink, a tradition that lives on in “the John Daly,” a cocktail of tea, lemonade and vodka. (Sans vodka, you have an “Arnold Palmer’):
Sweet tea has been trickling west and north ever since, first thanks in large part via “country cookin’” or southeastern restaurant chains like Cracker Barrel, Po’ Folks, Chick-fil-A, Zaxby’s, Grandy’s, and Raisin’ Cane’s. (There has long been one Texas-based purveyor of sweet tea: long-time Austinites recall that the Bill Miller BBQ empire has offered a concoction whose “clone recipe” calls for a cup of sugar per tea bag since the 1980s.)
The sweet tea invasion accelerated around 2008, when both McDonald’s and Burger King started offering sweet tea as a menu option nationwide. According to the ECU study:
We noted on the map states where our informants told us drinking sweet tea is a new phenomenon—primarily linked to its availability in chain restaurants. We received the response, “I never heard of the specific drink called sweet tea until McDonalds started selling it with that name” from many respondents. One Californian noticed an ad on the side of a bus for iced sweet tea at McDonalds—in Chinese. It appears that residents in the southeastern U.S. have a long standing tradition of drinking sweet tea and the behavior appears to be spreading throughout the U.S.
Suddenly, Texans unaccustomed to doing so were forced to holler “UN-sweet” into drive-through talk-boxes, over the noise of their engines, radios, and screaming kids. Servers in restaurants were asking you the same question, and often as not, bringing you a cloying tumbler of caramel-colored sucrose no matter what you said. Failing to stress that “UN-!” enough caused you to risk a swig of liquid angel food cake. One swig and no more, for, like beer to a teen, that syrupy beverage is nothing if not an acquired taste, one that most Texans have little need for.
And after all, it’s a hell of a lot easier to put more sugar in your tea than it is to take it out.
We’ll give Austin’s Andy Simmons the last word on the subject:
Pre-sweetened tea is disgusting. I drink my tea straight up, with ice and maybe a twist of lemon. Why would I allow someone to add large quantities of sugar? Why would they do that to me, a grown man, have they somehow mistaken me for a small child with a sweet tooth? Even as a child I found it revolting and undrinkable. I don’t allow people to pour quantities of sugar into my cocktails, either. If I wanted sugar water, I would have ordered sugar water. I ordered tea, please bring me tea.