Sweet Tea, Sweet Jesus
Religious experiences stem from the nectar of the South
By Amy Jo Wood
A conspiracy exists among new restaurants in North Carolina cities that threatens to drown a defining detail of what it means to be Southern. It's not the gritless bagel-and-cream cheese breakfasts, the blandness of Bennigan's or even the veggie cafes that don't fry their summer squash that divide us; it's places that force a choice between sweetened or unsweetened iced tea. The unsavory question is akin to asking Catholics if they'd like wine with their host.
Used to be, every Mom-'n'-Pop diner worth its weight in fatback served sweet tea. No questions, no choices, no problems. 'Course, that was back when green beans that crunched when chomped indicated severe undercooking.
The other day, a waitress named Katrina in a restaurant that charges $8.95 for steamed vegetables and rice inquired if I wanted sweetened or unsweetened iced tea.
"First of all, it's called sweet tea, and yes I'll have some."
Although iced tea was reportedly introduced to America in 1904 at the St. Louis World's Fair, Southerners made it famous with their stories of sipping sweet tea in Mason canning jars on Grandma's back porch during sweltering Sunday afternoons, while aunts and distant cousins fanned themselves with funeral-parlor fans, and told tales of the good ol' days.
Current connoisseurs of consumption tout the health benefits of tea, but a few purists seem to think the drink lost its ritual appeal once it left England, with its porcelain cups and designated tea times, behind. But I beg to differ. The South is nothing if not about ritual.
From the time I was 4 years old, in 1965, my family worshipped twice weekly at the white-columned, Green Street Baptist Church in downtown High Point, N.C. : on Sunday mornings, when I wore dotted-swiss dresses; and on Wednesday nights, when I was allowed to wear coolocks.
Naturally I preferred the decadent midweek gatherings because, in addition to being able to wear casual attire, I got to drink sweet tea from Styrofoam cups during the family night suppers.
As I aged into pre-adolescence, I was allowed to order sweet tea on Friday nights at fish houses that served fried, batter-fried, or double-fried flounder, but no tea tasted as sweet as the elixir poured by volunteers from silver pitchers that sweated beads of cool condensation.
During the break between supper and youth choir, my girlfriends and I escaped to an upstairs Sunday School room to savor sin.
Fuel up a gang of pre-teen, Southern gals with sugar and caffeine and let 'em loose to roam the halls of God's House, and they will find the only spot with a cassette player where they can dance to taped 45-rpm records of Michael Jackson singing "ABC, easier than 1,2,3, that's how easy love can be."
Loving God was about as easy as loving Michael Jackson in those days, everybody did it. I equated God's love with what happened at church: the making of good friends, construction-paper collages about Lottie Moon missionaries in China, and sweet tea.
But with every year of perfect attendance records at Green Street Baptist, our sense of wanderlust increased.
Initially, my group's field trips included gatherings at a favorite Sunday School teacher's house to assemble care boxes of lotion, Kleenex, and peppermints for nursing-home residents. We held prayer-dinner round-ups at Western Sizzler, a steak joint where by putting a red plastic cup on your tray, you signaled the waitress to fill it with sweet tea. No matter where we went, sweet tea was served and thus we were safe. And then came Daryl's restaurant.
Daryl's opened in the neighboring city of Greensboro on a road that would eventually become Any Street U.S.A.--a major thoroughfare lined with Wal-Marts, convenience stores, and chain restaurants with themes dreamed up in marketing departments, far from the source of their inspiration.
The decorators of the two-story Daryl's had hung fake-tin washboards, circus-poster replicas, and flickering lamps that looked like candles on the brick walls. The dim lights and loud music confused diners into choosing too many items from a menu the size of Homer's Odyssey and quickly became the destination de rigueur for people on prom dates, birthdays, and anniversary dinners.
It was reported to those of us in High Point who still ate with their parents at the tin-roofed, barbecue joint named Keplys, that Daryl's offered exotic dishes like lasagna and cheesecake, plus a salad bar.
We'd all had our fill of iceberg-lettuce wedges served with a homemade 1000 Islands dressing. We wanted a choice of bleu cheese, spicy Italian, and Ranch dressings for salads topped with olives, croutons, and bacon bits. We were the sophisticates of the really New South.
One November Sunday morning in 1974, when I was in 7th grade, our teacher asked for Christmas-celebration suggestions.
"Let's have a show of hands," began the woman who'd recently adorned her Bible with a calico coverlet to denote more abundant living, a popular Christian theme in those days.
"Who wants to take toys to our Clara Cox Mission?" a cinder-block church in the poor part of town.
No one moved.
"Who wants to make Rice Krispies Treats for the elderly?" her voice went up an octave in an effort to rally our enthusiasm.
No one spoke.
"Do we need to go to God in prayer with our inability to choose an appropriate celebration for the birth of his Son?" said our teacher.
"No, we need to go to Daryl's," yelled a girl in the back of the class, who wore bell-bottoms with mushroom appliqués on the back pockets even on Sunday mornings.
"They serve beer at that joint," said our teacher, as if her worldly knowledge should end the discussion.
"But we want the cheesecake!"
"Let's go to Daryl's," everyone yelled.
Our teacher knew she was out-numbered, and we knew she would eventually give in to our wishes, so we cheered until she shrugged okay. But there was a moment of sadness as she looked down and petted her cloth-covered Bible that made me wonder if we weren't pushing things too far, too fast. Times, they were a-changin', but who among us could have known it wasn't the beer that would make the difference?
On that fateful December night at Daryl's, when we took more time to situate ourselves around the table than Michelangelo might have needed to arrange the disciples in his painting of The Last Supper, we crossed a line of no return.
When the waitress served us tea, we gulped as always, and immediately spit out the tart, sugarless, caramel-colored water. What was this sacrilege?
"The tea's not sweetened," said the waitress.
For a moment we didn't know what to do.
The waitress nodded toward the condiment caddie in the middle of the table. Our optimism encouraged us to empty the sugar packets of their white granules into our tea glasses in an effort to change the world into which we had ventured to mirror the one we'd left behind.
It was then we discovered the truth about iced tea. No matter how much sweet stuff you put in, once the liquid cooled, sugar didn't dissolve. Our frantic stirring caused ice cubes to melt, and the clinking of spoons on glass could have quieted an entire restaurant for a toast, but the tea resisted change.
Our pastor, Dr. Price, once said that if you raised up a child in the Lord, they would never depart. We didn't understand it then, but sugar and tea reacted much the same way - a bond joined early on, during the heat of formation, tended to stay together.
After that Christmas dinner, the Sunday-School regulars disbanded. A few moved with their fathers to states with better paying jobs, some joined other denominations when the Charismatic movement caused a cataclysmic shift in the core of Christians at Green Street Baptist, and a couple rebelled by staying home and watching television.
My family and I continued our Sunday morning commitment, but somewhere between piano and dance lessons, the Wednesday night affair ended. Occasionally, I joined the youth group to eat at Pizza Hut--where plastic, squirt bottles of liquid saccharin sat on tables so dieters could save calories by squeezing chemicals into their iced tea. But it was never the same.
After growing up, moving away, and drinking herb, black, and green teas with every sort of agnostic, atheist, and adventurer imaginable, I moved back home to a land where I thought sweet tea still reigned supreme. A safe place, without doubts and questions.
So now, when I encounter a waitress who wants to know whether I want sweet tea or not, who thinks the option indicates progress, it makes me sad. As sad I was to learn there was a choice--between believing in God or not.
Copyright © The Southerner 2000.