Southern hospitality is reflected in many ways, such as friendly greetings to friends and strangers alike; leisurely and charming conversation; and edibles for every occasion … especially those involving new neighbors, new babies, or funerals. As ubiquitously Southern as these are, nothing sums up Southern hospitality like a tall glass of ice tea. One would be hard pressed to visit a South Carolina home without being offered the fragrant, amber elixir.
The roots of this particular tradition, like every other quintessentially Southern one, run deep. In the late 1700s, a French botanist by the name of André Michaux, who grew up in the shadows of the Palace of Versailles, toured the United States on invitation from Benjamin Franklin, then United States minister to France. Michaux found the ideal climate near Charleston for cultivating camellias, crape myrtles, and tea plants. He successfully planted tea near the Ashley River; however, the effort was soon abandoned. In 1888, Dr. Charles Upham Shepherd resurrected tea plant cultivation, and his efforts blossomed into the first successful American tea farm, producing 10,000 pounds of tea per year and boasting Dr. Shepherd’s prize-winning oolong Pinehurst tea.
Given its birthplace in the heart of South Carolina, no wonder the drink was popular among residents.
Unlike other tea-drinking locales around the world, the idea of sipping away at hot tea would never do here — the stifling climate simply forbids it. Our Southern ancestors solved the problem by pouring the brew over ice, resulting in what they named ice — not iced — tea. While surely the first recipe originated in South Carolina, the earliest published one hails from Housekeeping in Old Virginia, published in 1879: “Ice Tea. – After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea. If wanted for supper, do this at breakfast. At dinner time, strain, without stirring, through a tea strainer into a pitcher. Let it stand till tea time and pour into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pitcher. Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency.”
If recipe books are any indication, tea was a popular ingredient in boozy beverages beginning in the late 1700s. Charleston Receipts provides one example aptly named Regent’s Punch, “as mixed at Lewisfield Plantation, 1783.” The recipe calls for rock candy, a bottle of Champagne, high grade green tea, a half bottle of sherry, a tumbler of brandy, and sliced lemon.
Table settings gained graceful, tall tea glasses, and long teaspoons earned a berth in every lady’s silver chest. Prohibition descended in 1920, forcing the deletion of spirits from the drink and boiling it down to the current principal ingredients: tea, sugar, and water. In consolation for the loss of alcohol, readily available refrigeration arrived not long afterward in the 1930s. Historically, ice was a delicacy enjoyed by the wealthy. With easy access to freezers, any South Carolinian could enjoy a cold drink of ice tea on a hot summer day and offer it to friends stopping by for a visit.
Today, as then, ice tea is the epitome of refreshment as well as a fountain of welcome. Like barbecue and other Southern delicacies, opinions vary widely on the best ice tea recipes or brewing methods. Lemon or mint or plain, short brew times or long, an ice tea is available for every taste bud. Traditional ice tea is sweet, ranging somewhere between Skittles and a mouthful of cavities to health conscious versions that eschew sugar for honey or a squeeze of fruit. Regardless of how it gets in the glass, ice tea endures as the perfect hello to a friend on a hot Carolina day.