Sunday, August 23, 2009
I just had to share this article, AMERICANS AT THE TABLE: REFLECTIONS ON FOOD AND CULTURE (it's kinda long but it tickled both my funny bone and my interest). I ran across this culinary tale in E Journal, USA:U.S. Society & Values, put out by the U.S. Dept. of State/Bureau of International Information Programs.
Damn, that's quite a mouthful!
You should go and read the whole paper, it's got tons of recipes and history about how different foods became staples in the USA.
The author, though a native of the American South,disdains the region’s signature liquid refreshment, iced tea. He sees perversity behind the popularity of the highly sweetened drink, which he calls an “insipid banality,” but that doesn’t stop him from offering the reader guidance on how to prepare it.
"There are people who eat cold pasta salad. They enjoy despoiling their greenery with gummy, tasteless squiggles of tough, damp bread dough that are usually made palatable only when heavily disguised with hot tomato sauce and a stiff mask of Parmesan cheese. This salad does have the virtue of economy. Wednesday leftovers can be marketed to Thursday customers of perverse taste.
It is probably perversity also that accounts for the prevalence of ice tea in our American south. It was Edgar Allan Poe who first diagnosed this immitigable contrariness of human nature in his short story, The Imp of the Perverse, and he undoubtedly saw it as a normal trait of Dixie character. But please include me out. I am one southerner who detests that dirty water the color of oak-leaf tannin and its insipid banality. When I am offered ice tea by one of our charming southern hostesses, I know I’m in for a long afternoon of hearing about Cousin Mary Alice’s new babe and its genius antics in the playpen.
Hot tea makes sense. It can relax as well as stimulate and in fact may be sipped as a soporific. It can offer a bouquet pungent or delicate and causes us to understand why the Chinese designated certain strains of flowers as “tea roses.” It can be a topic of conversation, too, as southerners revive the traditional English debate as to whether the boiling water should be brought to the pot or the pot fetched to the water. Such palaver reassures us that all traces of civilization have not disappeared under the onslaughts of video games and e-mail.
But if you ice the stuff down it cannot matter in the least whether the water or the pot has journeyed. Any trace of the tea’s bouquet is slaughtered and only additives can give this tarnished liquid any aroma at all. There is, of course, plenty of discussion about these added condiments. Even the mildest of southern ladies may bristle and lapse into demotic speech when they consider that a glass of ice tea
has been improperly prepared.
Notice that we say, “ice tea.” Anyone who pronounces the successive dentals of “iced tea” is regarded as pretentious. And if you say “Coca-Cola” you will be seen as putting on airs, just as obviously as if you employed “you” as a collective pronoun. Down here we say “you-all,” “CoCola,” and “ice tea” and collect monetary fines from strangers who misspeak. Ignorance before the law is no excuse.
In recent years some enterprising women have seen the futility of the pot/water controversy and have begun making “sun tea,” a beverage that is never acquainted with either stove or teapot. They simply fill a gallon jug with water, drop in a flock of tea bags, and set the collocation out on the back porch to brew in the broiling August sunshine. If this method does not make the kitchen more cheerful, it does at least lessen the hypocritical chatter about proper procedure. Ice cannot harm sun tea; it is created beyond the reach of harm or help.
Now as to the recipe for ice tea: Lemons are essential and should be of the big thick-skinned variety, cut into sixths. They are never – repeat: never – squeezed but only plumped into the pitcher, four or five slices. Extra slices are offered on a cut-glass plate six inches in diameter. Mint may be added, but it is always submerged in the pitcher and never put into a glass where it would glue to the interior side like a Harley-Davidson decal.
And sweetening is the soul of this potation. The sugar bowl passes from hand to hand at a pace so dizzying it is like watching the rotating label on an old 78-rpm record. Southerners demand sweetness. The truly thoughtful hostess shall have already sweetened the tea for her guests with a simple sugar syrup that excludes the possibility of unpleasant graininess from bowl sugar. Sugar syrup for ice tea is concocted by adding one pound of Dixie Crystal sugar to a tablespoon of water. In the south sweetened ice tea is taken for granted, like the idea that stock car racing is our national pastime and that the Southern Baptist church is a legitimate arm of the Republican Party.
If you order ice tea in a restaurant it will arrive pre-sweetened. If you want it unsweetened you must ask for it. Actually, you must demand it with pistol drawn and cocked. And you will have to repeat your demand several times, because tea unsweetened is as abstruse a proposition to most servers as a theorem of Boolean algebra. Even then you can’t be sure. My wife Susan once ordered unsweetened, but it arrived as sweet as honey. The waitress pleaded for understanding. “We couldn’t figure out how to get the sugar out,” she said.
Why southerners are so sugar-fixated may be a mystery, but it is an indisputable fact. We are a breed who makes marmalades of zucchini, tomatoes, onions, and even watermelon rinds. Our famous pecan pie (“puhKAWN pah”) is a stiff but sticky paste of boiled Karo corn syrup studded with nuts. Since this is not sweet enough, it will likely be served with a gob of bourbon whipped cream dusted with cocoa powder and decorated with vegetable-peeler curls of milk chocolate.
“Do you want ice tea with that?”
“Oh yes. Sweetened, please.”
Well, I’ll confess that, though born in North Carolina, I make a poor example of a southerner. I don’t even capitalize the name of the region. I’m a Democrat, a non-Baptist, and don’t care what kind of car I drive. To me, adding broiled marshmallows to yams is like putting raspberry jam on porterhouse. I once spotted a recipe in the magazine Southern Living for CoCola cake and had to fight down a surge of nausea. I flee as if pursued from fatback, spoon bread, barbecue, grits, and – ice tea.
Susan tells me I need sweetening.
Fred Chappell is a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate. He has written numerous books of poetry and fiction, including First and Last Words, Midquest, More Shapes than One, Brighten the Corner Where You Are, and I Am One of You Forever.