I have a confession to make. I was not born in Arkansas. However, that’s a matter of my parent’s location at the time I chose to arrive in the world, not a matter of preferred geography.
Both sides of my family are from a little town in southwest Arkansas by the name of Gurdon. Paternally of the Bear family and maternally a Waldon, my pedigree runs back some distance here in this state.
However, I have lived here in Arkansas since before I was cognizant of the places and people around me. I grew up in Little Rock but spent weekends in far more rural locales, mostly along US Highway 67 south of the metropolis. My college years were spent in Russellville, a town I fell in love with. My first years in television, I lived in Jonesboro at the north end of the Arkansas Delta.
My earliest restaurant recollections are a mishmash – of special occasions at Brown’s Country Store and Restaurant in Benton, of vacation time trips to McClard’s Barbecue in Hot Springs, of smoked meats from Coursey’s in St. Joe and the birthdays of friends celebrated at Casa Bonita at University and Asher in Little Rock. I recall when getting a “coke” (a name for any soda) was more expensive than having a glass of tea or coffee, and I remember when refills weren’t free.
And I clearly recall, even from my earliest days, that tea did not come sweetened!
At my Nana and Papaw’s house south of Gurdon, I always drank the tea because the well water had a hint of sulfur. I can recall an adult I dined with in Little Rock having to ask for a sweetener for tea. I can still remember the white bottle with the girl on it that my cousins played with one afternoon, seeing if it really made the tea sweet. It did. It was nasty.
Yes, when I was a child, I could add a packet (or two, what a scandal!) to my drink and mix it up. I remember being told only kids did that, and that you didn’t drink your tea sweet when you grew up. I can even remember being small and getting in trouble for dumping a sugar shaker into my beverage.
But sweet tea was not a part of growing up in Arkansas in the 1970s, or even the 1980s. You wanted something sweet to drink, you got Kool-Aid. Or a coke. And those were special things. They weren’t what was put on the table.
I don’t think it would even have occurred to anyone in my family to make tea sweet before my generation – not a whole pitcher! My parents were Boomers, but their parents were Traditionalists, and they remember how expensive sugar was, especially during the second World War. Save sugar for cakes and pies.
Which is why I’m bothered by the hard statement given again and again when referring to Arkansas cuisine as a fragment of Southern cookery. I’m kinda put off by the statement that all Southerners drink sweet iced tea. I don’t. I might add honey to my hot tea when my throat is sore, but overall tea is meant to be tea – the specific infusion of leaves into water, served over ice.
Which brings me to my pet peeve – and that’s on ordering in a restaurant. If I order tea, I should get tea – just the tea, no sugar. However, this culture shift of the past couple of decades has convinced restauranteurs that sweet tea is the default. Usually when I ask for tea and I get “sweet or un?” I don’t get irritated. But sometimes it gets me. No, I don’t want UN-TEA. I want tea, freshly brewed, forget that lemon (but I’ll take a fresh bit of mint if you have it and I’m in the mood). I don’t want to give a lengthy explanation as to why I want my tea without additives and I sure as heck don’t need that little box of sweetener dropped off with the long spoon and straw. I figure the restaurant probably washes its glasses, too – which means I don’t need that straw either – but thanks for the offer.
I used to think this was just something I needed to be quiet about. After all, sweet tea’s a popular thing. McDonald’s offers it for a buck for a large sweet tea – oh, and by the way, there’s no guarantee they have any unsweetened tea available. Have you tried that stuff? It’s like upturning a sugarbowl into your mouth! I know, I wrote a book about pies, I shouldn’t have a problem with sweet. But you try it. Egads.
Still, I’ve noticed lately sitting down with friends my age (I turn 40 in October, imagine that), most of them turn to just plain old tea for dinner. And that makes sense. Without that film of sugar on your tongue, flavors come through naturally. There’s just enough caffeine to exist, no buzz really, and enough of a diuretic property to the beverage to make you drink more… tea. It’s a perfect cycle of tea and the other word that’s a letter of the alphabet.
The other day, my daughter ordered tea with her meal. And I could tell the moment she tried it, she’d been given the sweet stuff. She made a face. Yes, this four and a half year old who usually goes for milk or Sprite didn’t care for pre-sweetened tea. I don’t know if that means anything or not, but I thought I’d throw it in there.
So readers, especially those of you from without the borders of this excellent state, pay heed. The South may claim sweet tea as its table wine, but here in Arkansas the tea pours freely… as it should… without the taint of sugar.