Sweet tea. It’s a Southern delight. Ask any Northerner visiting the South for the first time. They’ll immediately realize why other customers put emphasis on the un of unsweetened tea. However, barring any health issues, they’ll also immediately be converted to the deliciously sweet drink.
The basic recipe for sweet tea uses water, tea bags and sugar. The difference between old-fashioned sweet tea recipes usually is found in how much of each and what brand. I talked with five local grandmothers who have each been making sweet tea for over 50 years. I was surprised to find how proud these women are of their recipes. I asked each woman if they would share the secret of their sweet tea as well as a sweet kitchen memory.
Kick back with a tall glass of tea and enjoy their memories.
Grandma Garmon, like most of the grandmothers I spoke with, learned to make sweet tea at the knee of her own grandmother.
“Grandmama used to have this glass pitcher for her tea. I used to think it was so fancy. It was just a plain old cut glass… She would let me pour in the sugar when I was a little girl. I thought I was so grown when I was allowed to boil that water and mix everything together.”
Grandma Garmon says the secret of her sweet tea is using Lipton. She started buying her own Lipton bags when she got married. She steeps three bags in four cups of hot water until it’s “dark enough” or “she remembers she is making tea”. She then stirs in between ½ and ¾ cup of sugar, adds a tray of ice and fills the pitcher “up to the line” with cold water.
Grandma Hartsell, “Liz”, says she doesn’t really have any sweet memory that sticks out because they’re all sweet.
“My grandmother lived with us from about the time I was 10. Every day it was her and me and Mama in the kitchen or in the garden peeling or planting or weeding or cooking. We had good times in that kitchen. I learned how to cook, but I learned how to be a wife and a mother too.”
READ MORE: 10 Steps to the Perfect Southern Tea Party
Liz says the secret to her sweet tea is a little bit of love. She adds that love by sticking her (clean) finger in her sweet tea brew!
Grandma Anne’s favorite memory is teaching her own daughter to make pie crust.
“Diane has a bake sale to do for the church and she decides she has to make pies because everyone loves my pies, so she must be able to make pies too. Here she is in tears because she cannot figure out how to get the crust to come together, and by golly, that crust is important! So I taught her how to do it right with ice water and not working it too much, and we spent the day making pies. And they were good too. Now she makes the pies for the holidays so I don’t have to. Only if I want to.”
Grandma Anne swears by Tetley teabags for her sweet tea. She says she made the switch only about five years ago, but she loves it. She uses four tea bags to four cups of hot water, a whole cup of sugar and tops her jug off with cold water.
Grandmother Franklin thinks of her mother’s sun tea when she remembers tea.
“Daddy left a Mason jar of water out in the yard when he was working on the fence one day. I was gonna pour it out but went to show Mother how neat it was that the sun had made the water so warm. She handed me a couple [tea] bags and told me to put the jar back out in the sun. I watched it turning colors and when it got good and dark, Mother pour some sugar in it and split the tea between two jars, added some ice and water, and we sat out on the porch enjoying that tea. I have loved sun tea ever since.”
Grandmother Franklin may have a soft spot for sun tea, but she usually makes sweet tea “the good old-fashioned way”. Her recipe involves filling up the tea kettle “until it’s about to pour out on the stovetop”, pouring that water into a room-temperature glass pitcher so it “doesn’t bust”, adds five or six tea bags because sometimes she needs a “kick”, a cup to a cup and a half of sugar and then polishes off the jug with cold water.
One of Grandma Williams favorite tea memories is of making sweet tea on a camping trip.
“It isn’t easy as it sounds to boil water over a cook fire. And we didn’t have a whole lot of ice so it was warmish sweet tea in the end, but it was sweet and it was summer. We were all having a great time so it didn’t really matter.”
Grandma Williams just uses generic store brand tea.
“Maybe it is me, but I can’t tell the difference.”
She also can’t imagine she makes her sweet tea any different than anymore else. Grandma Williams uses six tea bags to about three cups of just boiled water, three-quarters of a cup of sugar and about five cups of cold water.