There was a time when iced tea was strictly a summer drink. While I knew that growing up, I was surprised when traveling somewhere in Ohio on the first day of fall of 1975, to be told by my waitress that iced tea was no longer on their menu – it was out of season apparently.  They had it a day earlier, but this day — no! I thought briefly about just ordering a cup of hot tea and a glass of ice but then decided to settle for water. 

When I think about it, this had also been the norm in our home here in Fredericksburg. We never drank tea except in summers. Perhaps, that was due to our Kelvinator refrigerator having only one ice tray or we must have felt it to be too cold to drink it in the winter. When we did drink it, our tea was probably not very cold, but I loved it, most likely for the many teaspoons of sugar I could add. And having iced tea meant it was a very special time of year.

Apparently, unlike many homes throughout the south, ours was not sweetened by the pitcher. But back then, brewing it took a little effort. Thomas Sullivan made the first tea bags readily accessible in 1904. Water was heated in a pot on the stove with several tea bags in it. We didn’t have it every day — mostly Sundays, but southerners apparently drank it every day and all year. In summer my mother brought out her tall, delicately stemmed glasses she reserved for iced tea. It was the only time that these were used. It had always been my understanding that they were old Lipton glasses, but I later discovered they were made by the Federal Glass Company specifically for serving iced tea. I still have a dozen. Iced tea simply tastes best when served in them.

Iced tea started to appear in the United States in the 1860s. The oldest printed recipes for iced tea date back to the 1870s. In one book entitled The Buckeye Cookbook by Estelle Woods Wilcox, a graduate of Wesleyan University and first published in 1876. The other, Housekeeping in Old Virginia,written two years later by Marion Cabell Tyree, a granddaughter of Patrick Henry. Both were seen as novelties at first, but drinking iced tea became quite widespread. It began to be offered on hotel menus and at railroad stations. 

Its popularity rapidly increased after Richard Blechynden, a tea plantation owner, merchandised it at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, a fair intended to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. The hot summer weather caused fairgoers to ignore hot beverages in favor of cold ones — including iced tea. Twenty million visitors cooled themselves drinking iced tea and took the new style home. The fad spread throughout the United States and the world. One might marvel that ice was even available in summers, but shipping ice cross country was not uncommon. Iced tea’s popularity even led to an addition to standard cutlery sets: the iced tea spoon -a teaspoon with a long handle, suitable for stirring sugar in the tall glasses in which iced tea was served.

Iced tea became a common staple of the Southeastern United States where very sweet iced tea was, and still is, popular. In that region, it is often the case that when ordering tea, it is assumed by default to mean sweetened iced tea, and it arrives at the table already sweetened. I prefer to sweeten my own tea – hence the need for an iced teaspoon.

As tea plantations took off in India and Ceylon, countries in Africa started producing tea in the second half of the 19th century. The price of tea — once a product mainly of China — dropped considerably. The majority of the tea these African countries produced was black, making it a popular and economical choice, however prior to WW II Americans were split about evenly on the preference of black tea and green tea. During WW II, our association here in the US with tea underwent its first radical change since the Boston Tea Party. Back then tea packed quite a potent punch as it was drunk primarily with rum. Now you know the real story behind that protest. I discovered the article, “Tea: a Story of Serendipity” written for FDA Consumer magazine. It explains how World War II cut off trade with China and Japan — the major suppliers of green tea — leaving Americans with only British-supplied black teas from India. Accordingly, “Americans came out of the war drinking nearly 99 percent black tea.” Seven decades later, black tea is still the preferred version here. Yet, unlike in England, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., 85% of all tea consumed in the United States today is sipped cold. We’ve come far from the Boston Tea Party.

There are three main categories of tea, Green, Oolong, and Black. Green Tea is made from fresh leaves, derived immediately after picking. After steaming they are dried to prevent oxidation. Oolong is a large, leafed tea, semi-fermented whose fermentation is arrested before being complete. Black Tea is fermented. Its leaves are wilted, bruised by rolling, and fermented with air so that oxidization takes place. It is then dried. You will find teas that have been adapted with popular flavorings or a particular blend.  Jasmine Tea is tea flavored with jasmine flowers. Orange Pekoe Tea is made from black leaf teas broken and passed through rollers. Earl Grey is black tea scented with oil of bergamot, a type of citrus native to Italy, and English Breakfast Tea is a blend of black teas tending to be stronger than others.

Despite all these choices, and I have taken “high tea” in London, my favorite is still the simplest — that wonderful taste of iced tea drunk on a hot summer day.

The Perfect Iced Tea

In a saucepan, bring 8 cups water to a boil
Remove from heat
Add 6 tea bags or 3 tbls loose tea
Steep (soak) for 14 minutes
Remove the tea bags or strain tea leaves
Serve over ice
Sweeten to taste
Sliced lemons or mint are optional

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