Tuesday, September 24, 2013

“How about some iced tea? lt's the house wine of the South” – Truvy in Steel Magnolias

            I was weaned on sweet tea. My Mama tells the story of how I, just a wee thing on a hot summer day in our hot car, asked, “Does you have any tea in your pocketbook?” She would make pitchers of the amber liquid to keep in our motel rooms when we traveled, because it was all that I would drink. Not water. Not soft drinks from the vending machine. Just tea. And it’s still my main beverage today. I drink it when I first wake up, with my meals, at bedtime, and whenever I’m thirsty. Oh, I flirt with an occasional rogue beverage which comes my way now and then. And I drink a cup of coffee after supper. Have an occasional glass of wine with a meal. Punch at parties. Brandy when I have a cold. But tea runs in my veins. If they measured your blood-tea level like they measure blood-alcohol, I’d be way over the limit.
            When I moved to Texas from Alabama, I was shocked to find that tea was not served sweet in restaurants. If you wanted your tea sweet, they expected you to tear open little packets found on the table, pour, and stir. How barbaric! Oh, the occasional glass of sweet tea may be found at a few establishments, but the universal lack of sweet tea in the state is just one of the notable points to be made when discussing whether Texas is Southern or Western. (Perhaps a reflection on that another time.) When my Daddy visits he still assumes the tea will be sweet in restaurants, and I have to remind him, “You’re in Texas now. You have to sweeten your tea yourself.”
  When I order tea or refer to it in any way, I don’t mean hot tea. I mean iced tea or sweet tea, the terms being interchangeable in the South. Here’s what’s in it: black tea, water, lemon, and sugar. And, of course, you may garnish it with mint to be fancy. Pure cane sugar is the presumed sweetener, but alas, I switched to generic Splenda after a bout with gestational diabetes while pregnant with my daughter. I’ve continued on with the sugar substitute for the calorie savings.
And as for lemon, well, why would anyone serve iced tea without lemon? As I’m writing this, I’m drinking a bottled sweet tea that I purchased in a vending machine (hey, I was thirsty). It contains sugar and black tea and natural flavor, which I was hoping would be lemon, but, alas, is not. In restaurants, Mama always orders her tea this way: “I want iced tea. With lemon. And bring me some extra lemon. Now listen, I get ornery if I don’t have plenty of lemon. I like a lot of lemon.” The waiter is invariably a male just on the border between teenager and young adulthood. He either responds with a nod of the head and large eyes and returns with a heaping bowl of lemon wedges for which he receives an appropriately appreciative tip, or he purses his lips and returns with two shriveled lemon wedges on a napkin served with a surly expression. Occasional the worst happens - he forgets to bring any lemon at all and then things have been known to turn ugly.
            But nothing is uglier, or should I say rude, then having someone in your home and not offering them a glass of iced tea. The offering is synonymous with hospitality across the South. You can also judge someone’s character by their response to your offer. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a person who says, “No thank you. I’m not thirsty.” Or the person, who declines the tea and accepts water instead. But, if the person accepts the tea, well, I think that’s the mark of a true Southern lady or gentleman. Their quality of raising shows. Just saying. And as for me, well, if the person says, “I don’t drink iced tea,” then I send that one packing the first chance I get.
Perhaps a stroll through the history of tea will explain why I’m a disciple among the Southerners devoted to the beverage. (As for the question of “is it ‘ice’ or ‘iced’ tea?,” Southern Living magazine, the other Bible of the South, says “iced.” Amen.) So, I first visited Wikipedia (don’t we all) and read, “Sweet tea is a style of iced tea commonly consumed in the United States, especially the Southern United States. Sweet tea is made by adding sugar to bags of black tea brewing in hot water while the mixture is still hot. The tea is served ice-cold and plain but may also be flavored, traditionally with raspberry, lemon, or mint. An important part of the tradition of the South, it is often consumed daily as a staple drink.”
On a side note, I Wikipediaed (don’t you just love that word? – it’s like Googled) Wikipedia and read that one of the founders, Larry Sanger, was born in Washington State, raised in Alaska, and educated “up North.” But the other founder, Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales is from Huntsville, Alabama. His father managed a grocery store (seller of tea), and Jimbo received his bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn University. He then entered the PhD finance program at the University of Alabama before leaving with a master's degree to enter a PhD finance program at a Northern university. He’s a Southern boy who would know a thing or two about iced tea.
I next visited the What's Cooking America website run by Linda Stradley. She states:
 Southerners swear by their traditional sweet ice tea and drink it by the gallons. In the South, iced tea is not just a summertime drink, it is served year round with most meals. When people order tea in a Southern restaurant, chances are they will get sweet iced tea. Outside of the southern states, iced tea is served unsweetened or “black,” and most people have never even heard of sweet tea.
 Stradley’s site notes that the first tea plant arrived in the U.S. in the late 1700s when French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux (1746-1802) imported a number of attractive plants for Charleston planters. South Carolina was the first state to grow tea back in 1795 and the only state where tea has been produced commercially. English and American cookbooks contained recipes for cold tea as far back as the early 19th century. At that time, cold, green tea punches spiked with liquor were popular. The community cookbook Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree published in 1879 contains the oldest-known printed, sweet tea recipe:
 "Ice Tea. - After scalding the teapot, put into it one quart of boiling water and two teaspoonfuls green tea. If wanted for supper, do this at breakfast. At dinner time, strain, without stirring, through a tea strainer into a pitcher. Let it stand till tea time and pour into decanters, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pitcher. Fill the goblets with ice, put two teaspoonfuls granulated sugar in each, and pour the tea over the ice and sugar. A squeeze of lemon will make this delicious and healthful, as it will correct the astringent tendency."
 Stradley states that after 1900, black tea replaced green tea in most cookbook recipes as inexpensive exports arrived from India, Ceylon, South America, and Africa. By World War I, tall iced tea glasses, long-handled iced tea spoons, and lemon forks were produced in America. Prohibition boosted iced tea’s popularity as an alternative to alcohol. Fighting in World War II cut-off supplies of almost all green tea from reaching the United States, leaving British-controlled India, with its black tea, as our primary supplier of tea.
Yes, I know that iced tea has been and is consumed outside of the South. Stradley provides an 1884 recipe out of Boston for “Ice Tea or Russian Tea” that contains black tea, sugar, and lemon. At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair a concessionaire grossed over $2,000 selling iced tea and lemonade. But the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis truly popularized and commercialized iced tea. According to Pamela J. Vaccaro’s book Beyond The Ice Cream Cone - The Whole Scoop on Food at the 1904 World's Fair: “iced tea appeared on most restaurant menus at the Fair.” That summer was especially hot in St. Louis. And I think that is one reason why iced tea is so loved in the South.
Has there ever been anything more refreshing on a hot, humid day than a glass of iced tea? Especially in pre-air-conditioning days?  I think, too, that Southerners love of tea is rooted in our culture and customs derived from our British Colonial roots. In fact, tea is so integral to our culture that on April 10, 1995, South Carolina's homegrown tea was adopted as the Official Hospitality Beverage by State Bill 3487, Act No. 31 of the 111th Session of the South Carolina General Assembly.
But besides tea’s place in hospitality, the beverage has health benefits. The leaves contain antioxidants in the form of flavonoids. There are compounds in black tea that promote heart health and fight cancer. And tea might make you a little smarter. According to Andrea N. Giancoli, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, "Both green and black tea contain theanine, an amino acid that can help to improve attention and enhance the ability to learn and to remember." Yes, my blood-tea content surely would be over the limit, if there was one. But why would there be? Tea is good for the body, the mind, the soul.
The benefits are not lost on Georgia State Representative John Noel. In 2003, Noel and four co-sponsors introduced House Bill 819, requiring all Georgia restaurants that serve tea to serve sweet tea. Noel admitted that the bill was an attempt to bring humor to the Legislature for April Fool’s Day, but he would not mind if it became law. The text of the bill proposed:
(a)  As used in this Code section, the term 'sweet tea' means iced tea which is sweetened with sugar at the time that it is brewed.
(b)  Any food service establishment which served iced tea must serve sweet tea. Such an establishment may serve unsweetened tea but in such case must also serve sweet tea.
(c)  Any person who violates this Code section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature.
These five men are obviously committed to the welfare of their constituents as evidenced by this important legislation.
I shall conclude with my own
 “Ode to Sweet Tea” (My apologies to Joyce Kilmer).
I think that I shall never drink
A beverage as refreshing as sweet tea.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11 Twelve Years Later

World Trade Towers

            I dropped my son off at Kindergarten and turned on the radio for the drive home. “A small plane has crashed into one of the World Trade Towers in New York.” A few blocks later, “The plane appeared to be a passenger jet, according to witnesses.” And then, “A second plane has struck the second tower. This appears to not be an accident.” No. Not an accident.
            I arrived home and turned on the t.v. I began to dress for the weekly meeting of my women’s Bible study. I returned to my den and saw that the picture on my screen was not of the World Trade Towers, but of the Pentagon, its unmistakable shape smoking from a gaping wound caused by another plane. I listened to the reports from New York and Washington.
            I drove to my church, a few blocks away. We gathered in a circle, held hands, and prayed. Prayed for the victims. Prayed for the survivors. Prayed for those trapped in the buildings. Prayed for their families. Prayed for the rescue workers. Prayed there would be no more planes. “One of the towers has collapsed.” We prayed some more.
            The call came on my cell phone. The Johnson Space Center was shutting down. Since my son’s school was so close to the facility and many of the parents worked there, my son’s school was sending everyone home. I entered the classroom and was met by son’s smiling teacher. “We haven’t told the children anything. We’ll leave it up to you to tell your child what you want him to know.”
            “Why are leaving early?” “Something’s happened,” I said. And I told him. We turned on the t.v. when we arrived home. So much news. None of it good. A plane down in a Pennsylvania field.  All air traffic ordered down on the ground. All flights cancelled. The Capital evacuated. U.S. borders closed. A scare with a suspicious truck driving the wrong way on the interstate in Houston. “They’ll have to tear the North Tower down, I would think,” Tom Brokaw said. “There’s been so much structural damage.” And then we watched the tower fall.
            I spent the day in front of the t.v. I talked with my mother on the phone. My son lost interest in the reports and returned to his playthings, his normal life. We went out to eat that night. The little, neighborhood, Italian restaurant had set up a t.v. in the dining room so that everyone could watch the continuing reports. The mood was somber. People talked in whispers. My son enjoyed his tortellini. I smiled at him.
            School resumed. People went back to work. The rubble slowly cleared as the stories continued to come. And the stories still come. Every September 11th. We remember. We’ll never forget.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

“There’s a Firefly Loose Tonight…” from “Firefly” Lyrics and Music by Ed Sheeran

Do you want to see fireflies? I asked my 9-year-old daughter.
“Oh, yes!” she answered.
“There’s a Firefly Walk this Friday night at Armand Bayou Nature Center. I’ll sign us up.”
And so we went - me, her, and my mother. We arrived in the early evening of an early May day, before the Houston summer heat had made the notion of tromping around a bayou something only an insane person would choose to do. We gathered with other bug enthusiasts in a half-circle around our guide for the evening, a teacher by profession and nature lover by passion. Our group was an assorted lot of parents accompanying children of various ages and attention spans. Our guide explained how many species of fireflies there are in the world (2,000), how the insects produce light (two chemicals, luciferase and luciferin, convert to energy in their tails), and what their lights means (this boy firefly finds this girl firefly very attractive). “Hopefully, we’ll see some tonight,” the guide said. And then we were off, down a dirt and gravel path into the scrubby thicket of trees sprouting around the brackish water of Armand Bayou.
We saw birds. But no fireflies. We saw turtles. But no fireflies. We walked until the path ended at the water. We saw the orange sun sink behind the trees with the colors of the night swirling down to meet it. But no fireflies. So, we turned and started back. The path grew dark, and stars began to twinkle in the slivers of sapphire sky we glimpsed through the tree canopy. A slight desperation sounded in our guide’s voice as she used a black-light to illuminate colorful lichen growing on the bark of trees newly-grown since the great hurricane, Ike, laid waste to the area a handful of years back. The children delighted in the colorful displays revealed by the light, but I was disappointed. This isn’t what I came to see.
And then, we approached a clearing.
“Is that one?”
“Look there!”
“There’s one!”
Voices shouted the reports as the children dashed about.
“Look, Laura, over there! Do you see it?” I asked my daughter.
“I see it! I see it!” She ran off to chase after the dozen-or-so glowing insects flitting near the trees.
It was time to go. Our relieved guide gathered us together and led the way back to parking lot. “I saw fireflies, so we got our money’s worth!” Laura exclaimed, satisfied.
“When I was a little girl, we called them lightning bugs,” I said.
Do you want to see fireflies? I asked my 17-year-old son.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a firefly,” he answered. I maneuvered the car around the curves of Vestavia Drive in Vestavia Hills, Alabama a month later. We had come to see family; me and my mother returning home, my children visiting a place they had only heard about. I drove them along this street, winding along the crest of Shades Mountain, to show them the view. They are children of flat land, steam-rolled flatter than a pancake. I wanted to show them a mountaintop and everything spread out below. I stopped the car on the shoulder of the road, a street lined on one side with fine, large homes from the first half of the 20th century, the days of Vestavia’s founding as a suburban enclave on a rocky peak just south of Birmingham. Across the street from the houses, the land drops away, down to Shades Valley below. Each homeowner also owns the parcel of land across the street, so that nothing can be built to block the view - the view of the valley cradling the city of Homewood and Samford University, my alma mater. The valley spreads to the north, and in the distance, silhouetted against the darkening sky, the statue of Vulcan, god of the forge, lifted his spear as a symbol of Birmingham, a city founded on iron, coal, and limestone, the holy triumvirate necessary for steel-making. We came to the mountaintop to see the view, but as we admired it, something else caught my eye. A flash by the azaleas. A twinkle by the boxwoods. “Do you want to see fireflies?” I asked Davis.
And when he said he had never seen one, I said, “Look there.” Laura saw them first, two twirling around each other, streaking light as they went.  And then they were everywhere, emerging from the bushes and trees all around us, flitting around in the warm air of a June Southern evening. And we saw many, flashing in the yards throughout my hometown, during our visit.
We left Birmingham and drove southeast, along U.S. 280 to Auburn for my son to visit the campus of Auburn University, my daddy’s alma mater. And from there we drove southwest along Interstate 85 to meet I-65 in Montgomery which led the way to my daddy’s house near Mobile Bay. The fireflies were with us, twinkling in the bushes along the side of the freeway, until we passed through the state capital, and then they were gone. “Why aren’t we seeing any more fireflies?” Davis asked.
“When I was a little girl, we called them lightning bugs,” I said.
Do you want to see fireflies? No, I want to see lightning bugs. The lightning bugs of my childhood nights. Evenings in our backyard. The air cooler as the sun dipped low. I ran around in the grass, always with a long stick in my hand brandished like either a sword or a wand, depending on the flight of my imagination at that twilight hour. They emerged from the bushes and my mother’s plants. They darted and flashed. I caught them in my hand, quite easily I recall. I watched each one flash his little tail as he sat on my palm. I cupped my hands closed and saw the light glow on and off through the cracks between my fingers. I released each bug into the air. And then I caught the next one, stopping only occasionally to pluck a blossom from the honeysuckle vine that spilled over the chain-link fence between our house and the next-door-neighbor’s. I pulled the cap off the blossom, drawing the stamen out the bottom, and dripped the sweet nectar on my tongue.  And then I chased the next darting flash until the dusky violet twilight deepened into velvety blackness and I could no longer spot the lightning bugs’ dark bodies swooping around me.
My yard now sits a few blocks from a lake that’s really a bay that empties into another lake that’s really a bay that spills into Galveston Bay which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. With all that water around, there are bugs. Plenty of bugs. Beautiful ones like dragonflies and butterflies. And annoying ones. Itch-inducing, disease-carrying ones. Mosquitoes. The truck comes by regularly on the many-months-long Houston summer nights. The buzz of the spraying truck is only slightly less annoying than the buzz of the nuisances it comes to exterminate. The poisonous fog spews into the air.
I never see lightning bugs in my yard.
Less than two miles away from my house, I sat in the half-circle gathered to listen to the guide for our Firefly Walk.  The brochure I held in my hand that night by the bayou stated, “Fireflies are very familiar on summer evenings.” I wish that it were so. That I could walk into my yard at nightfall and wait for the little flashes to begin. A light show put on by little bugs shining their little lights in the great, big darkness. 

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton