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Sweet Tea and Porches - It's a Southern Thing

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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A glass of sweet tea on a South Carolina porch
There's nothing better than cooling off with a glass of sweet tea on a big South Carolina porch.

Porches and sweet tea-now there's a match made in South Carolina heaven. From the fanned, ferned and wickered verandas of Southern homes, bargains have long been struck with the devilish heat by sweltering folk seeking a reprieve. In these parts, it's tradition for such deals to be sealed with sweating glasses of sweet iced tea. Though they hail from different sides of the Mason-Dixon, porches and sweet tea crossed the line a long time ago to officially become a couple. This pairing is now a cultural, time-honored fixture at humble farm houses, majestic manors and every kind of Southern abode in-between.

About Southern Porches

Southern porches-sometimes called verandas or piazzas-are more than pausing places for fishing out door keys, stomping dirt from shoes or shaking wet umbrellas. They are outdoor welcoming parlors, places where friends are invited to be family, where the cool budding of early romance burgeons in the warmth and the business of relaxation is carried out from tall rockers and creaky swings. An invention of aesthetics and necessity, the first American porches added visual interest to homes and functioned as crude air conditioning systems providing respite from the tyrant heat. Admittedly this was a Northern proposition, with New York landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing credited for encouraging the nation's porch movement in the mid-1800s. But leave it to South Carolina to improve on a good thing with the addition of sweet tea, which significantly contributed to the cooling effect of a leisurely sit on the porch.

About South Carolina Tea

In the late 1700s, the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, made its way from China all the way to the fields of what is now Middleton Place near Charleston. That futile attempt at cultivation was undertaken again in the late 1800s when Dr. Charles Shepard established Pinehurst Tea Plantation in Summerville. Success! Americans were now growing tea and award-winning tea, at that. After Shepard's death in 1915, the tea plants were largely untended until they were transplanted to an experimental farm on Wadmalaw Island. Nearly 25 years later, the farm was bought and restructured. Now operated by tea giant Bigelow, Charleston Tea Garden continues to be the nation's only commercial grower of tea leaves and producer of the aptly named American Classic Tea.

The Deal Gets Sweetened

Though its stance has been challenged, the town of Summerville lays claim to the title "Birthplace of Sweet Tea." You'd think its solid place in tea history would be enough to silence the naysayers. After all, if the tea tipplers living near the first American tea plantation didn't conceive the idea of sweetening tea, who did?

Remarkably, some tea historians have given credit to locales as far flung as Boston. Well, bless their hearts. Don't they know that, had the Boston Tea Party taken place in Charleston Harbor, South Carolinians would have likely thrown in a great deal of sugar to make it proper?

The sweet tea truth is widely believed by area folks to lie in a list of provisions from an 1890s Confederate soldiers encampment near Summerville. Documented along with 4,800 pounds of bread, six bushels of beans, a "wagon load" of potatoes and other goods, are 600 pounds of sugar and 880 gallons of tea. Disclosure: Though this list pre-dates all other sweet tea claims, the words "sugar" and "tea" aren't listed consecutively. So, the naysayers continue to naysay. But what would so much sugar be used for? A crunch of the numbers yields approximately 1 ¾ pounds of sugar (about 4 cups) per gallon of tea-just about right by some Southern standards.

Sweet Tea Today

As the cost of sugar went down, it was only natural that the amount Southerners added to the tea pitcher went up. Modern technology upped the availability of ice cubes and the call for porches went gangbusters-all of which made for a perfect storm of thirst-quenching goodness. The result is the South's very own syrupy sweet, icy cold elixir, as precious as wine to the Italians, beer to the Germans and vodka to Russians. (Of course, a couple of South Carolinians got the idea to distill their own vodka, mix it with sweet tea and now produce the wildly popular Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. But that's another story...)

To strengthen its place in sweet tea history, Summerville established the Sweet Tea Trail, a route that meanders through the town's five districts. Stop in select shops along the way for a taste of Southern culture poured over ice or have your picture taken in front of the world's largest cup of tea-a fact corroborated in 2015 by Guinness World Records. To further solidify its claim to fame, the town throws a Sweet Tea Day celebration each June 10th, a bacchanalian-like observance where the masses get buzzed on sugar and caffeine while gathered around the giant tea glass filled to the brim with 1,425 gallons-that's 23,000 cups-of sweet liquid gold. Actually, it's not quite that riotous, but loads of family fun all the same.

Back to the Porch

Of course, you don't have to wait until summer to experience a sweet tea celebration. Fact is, they are happening all the time on porches across the South. You don't need a sweeping veranda, either-any old porch will do as long as there's shade and a few chairs for relaxing. Brew a pitcher of sweet tea, pour over glasses of ice, invite the neighbors, claim a rocker and chase away the heat. It's a consensus in the South: The best glass of sweet tea is always the one you drink on the porch.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.