In search of sweet tea (and sexy sex)

indexDrinking lukewarm Coke in Paris is no fun. You’re going to want some ice with that. When you ask for the ice, the waiter will make a sigh that roughly translates: “Savage from another land. Why would anyone want their soft drink chilled?” When the other people at the table you are sitting at all ask for ice with their soft drinks, the waiter will make a showy gesture as if wondering how any of you got into the restaurant. Presumably he will go and yell at someone in French in the kitchen, speaking so fast that all you would be able to decipher from this is angry noise. Then he will plunk down a large bowl of ice on the table, and everyone at the table will wonder whether he did something unsanitary or even unspeakable to the ice. You are pretty sure he did. No one will touch the ice, which makes the waiter more testy. It’s a vicious circle. (This, anyway, is how I experienced Paris when I traveled there in the early 80s on a whirlwind tour with my French class mates from West Rowan High School in Mt. Ulla, North Carolina. Things may have changed since. I doubt it, but I have no way of knowing.)

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In New York City, you can get ice with anything, no problem. Try asking for sweet tea. It’s a no go, a non-starter, an idea that dies in the water everywhere you eat and drink. My wife’s parents came from North Carolina to New York recently to visit. My father-in-law always orders unsweetened ice tea. That way he can squeeze some special artificial sweetener he carries around in his pocket into the tea. I understand he does it for his health. When he orders unsweetened tea here, its a distinction without a difference. Just order tea. No point in asking for unsweetened tea. Toto, you’re not in Kansas anymore.

indexMy wife’s uncle Paul, who lives in Texas, carries a small vial of cayenne pepper around on a chain on his neck so he can add it to things cayenne pepper should never be added to. Sushi? Sure. I’ll have some. Just needs some cayenne pepper. Hot dog. Not without the cayenne pepper. Oyster on the half shell. Yep. Goes good with cayenne pepper. Luckily, I have seasoning right here.

My son Avery who was once discovered under the kitchen table drinking straight from a bottle of ketchup (yes, he’s autistic and also a great lover of ketchup) has a similar philosophy. Ketchup improves anything. The only thing that can improve ketchup itself is the addition of more ketchup, which is a maxim in geometry. When he runs out of fries, if he still has ketchup left over, that’s a good time to dip a finger in the ketchup and lick it off. If he could, he would carry a canteen worth of ketchup at all times and pour it over pizza and spaghetti or whatever he’s having at the moment.

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Sweet tea doesn’t seem like much to ask for in a city that has everything else you can imagine. Things you want like great public art. Things you never knew existed like the Museum of Sex. Things you don’t want like blizzards and Hepatitis A. Back home in North Carolina, sweet tea was like Mother’s Milk, only more readily available. We drank it at every meal when we were out. Posh restaurants. Wendy’s. Wherever and whenever. There’s an unwritten ban on sweet tea in New York City. Over-sized soft drinks are not banned, although Mayor Bloomberg tried his best to do that. Only sweet tea.

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When I go back South, I revel in sweet tea and sweet talk from strangers. You can often get both at the same time with ice for good measure. “Would you like some sweet tea, hon?” I always want to say to the waitress in response: “Yes. And I love you.” But this seems inappropriate. Once, at a barbecue restaurant near Raleigh, I gushed out a declaration of love for a waitress who had just given me a sweet tea and a “hon.” I went on to explain I was from the South, but I had been living in the North too long. And I was just visiting here. My wife grimaced. The waitress smiled. Apparently she was used to dealing with idiots.

imagesGo into a Waffle House if you need a good “hon.” Cracker Barrel also usually has a healthy supply of them. The checkout line at some Food Lions might have them, but they could be out of stock. The Harris Teeter in Chapel Hill hasn’t had any in ages. Any Waffle House anywhere always has them in abundance, stacked up and waiting just behind the counter like doughnuts. Fresh baked and yet cool enough to consume. Free. No need to ask. The hon is not extra. It’s just southern love spilling out of its cup and running over and splashing down on you like syrup, but with no calories. No one will make a face or bring you a bowl of suspicious ice or yell about you in French behind your back. It’s all good, hon.

The South exerts a gravitational pull on its native sons, stronger than the moon. It’s a kiss in the wind, a tide that pulls with invisible strength. Paradoxically, when I was in the South, I experienced very little sensation of being southern.  I was immune to the allure of tractor pulls and only attended one Sons of the Confederacy meeting with my Uncle Frank but only accidentally because he didn’t tell me we were going there when I got in the car so I doubt that counts. The further north I travel, the more southern I am becoming. Dripping with southern culture. Drawn to southern notions and sensibilities. If I were to make it past Canada and Alaska and out onto the Arctic Circle, I would at that moment become the most southern I could ever be in my life. I would celebrate the Aurora Borealis – the swirling Northern Lights that bend and dance – with sweet tea. With ice.

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In search of sweet tea (and sexy sex)

8 thoughts on “In search of sweet tea (and sexy sex)

  1. I am much like your father-in-law, except that I don’t carry the packets with me. Yet, if I suddenly find the conspicuous absence of yellow packets amongst a sea of blue and pink, I get annoyed. I have learned of their secret though. They have yellow packets, just segregated from the blue and pink ones. I don’t know if they are in “timeout” from the others; maybe they don’t play well. Maybe they have a superiority complex. Yet, for whatever reason, they are separate, and you must be specific in how many you want. And in some place, be prepared to write an essay on why you want them. It is worth it.

    1. The brand my father-in-law carries in his pocket to every meal out is Mio, which is supposed to be a natural sweetener. But unless God put it in the bottle, it still seems artificial to me. I love that you write that an “essay” might be required to get specific sweeteners. I’ve seen that argument played out before with the waitress explaining that all sweeteners are the same and someone at the table making a long point about how they are so-not-the-same. If she doesn’t want to walk back to the kitchen to find your specific sweeteners, then I suppose you could tip her a bit less. I hate to argue with people in public, so I would end up with too few of the wrong sweetener for sure if I used them. I also have no clue why yellow sweeteners are separated from blue and pink ones, but it seems like an injustice someone should address. When no sweet tea is at hand, I forget tea altogether and I’m all about the H to the 2 to the 0.

  2. Jordan says:

    I am learning a lot about your – and my – southernness from reading your blog.

    I can appreciate the “hon”‘s that are so liberally sprinkled out in the more casual dining establishments. I definitely embrace our notions of friendliness and hospitality. I hardly ever drink soda, but when I do I want it to be ice cold. I have experienced warm Cokes in Paris, and while I wasn’t brave enough to ask for ice, I have a hard time understanding the appeal of warm, fizzy cola. Especially in a land where food experiences are elevated to a near spiritual level. There is no butter or cream in Hell. (I’m guessing). But hot soda seems like some kind of penance or self-inflicted punishment.

    Having said all that though, I must admit that I do not like sweet tea. Maybe if it was just “sweet” I would find it refreshing. But that is usually not the case. It most often goes way past “sweet” on the meter and ends up at “even hummingbirds would gag on this”.

    I do occasionally appreciate a “half and half” tea though. Half unsweetened tea, half sweet tea sludge. I like it best at places where you can make up the mixture yourself. Like Jason’s Deli. I make a tea suicide of unsweetened, sweetened, green citrus and black raspberry.

    Is that still southern?

    1. That is completely southern in my book, especially the part about making a “suicide” mixed drink. Andrew would go straight down the line of sodas at a McDonald’s pushing every lever until he had something of everything. It was colorful, I would say to him. But was it good? The South is a large umbrella and takes in many different kinds of tea. I am not in favor of hot tea, personally. That’s just wrong. I like the English and everything. Doctor Who. Neil Gaiman. The Beatles. But having a cup of hot tea. Yuck. So bad. But still, if you are drinking hot tea and loving it, I’m OK with that. And you are still southern. It’s all good. I’m just not going to follow you down that road.

  3. Jordan says:

    Fair enough. And I will put out a dish of diabetic candies when you come to visit in your old age – after all that sweet tea has caught up with your pancreas and it taps out. Bless its heart. Because catering to the needs of your guests is definitely Southern.

  4. Jordan says:

    It may just be this Northern sojourn that saves your pancreas and allows you to drink sweet tea at will for the rest of your life. Who knew?

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