Aug 16, 201012:00 AM
The Editor's Room
Weekly Commentary with New Orleans Magazine’s Errol Laborde
Errol Laborde: The Mystery of the Sweet Tea
Several years ago Time magazine was planning a special issue about the South and invited Southern readers to send in brief essays about what the South meant to them. That, I saw as an opportunity to boost my writing career until I sat and thought about the proposition. The South, I realized, is just not something I relate to.
That was not meant to be a putdown but just an acknowledgment that New Orleans is a cultural experience in its own. I feel more New Orleanian than I do Southern. I could write volumes about what New Orleans means to me –– but the South, to me, is a distant place.
As proof that Louisiana is a subset within the South, there is the kudzu. Throughout the woods in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, the vine covers fallen trees, abandoned Chevys and anything else that did not move fast enough to get out the way. Yet in Louisiana, kudzu hardly grows at all, as though there is an invisible shield along the Pearl River stopping its spreading. Nature concedes that Louisiana is a place apart.
Why kudzu stops at the border is a mystery –– another mystery is sweet tea. Travel east of New Orleans, and order iced tea at a restaurant, and the waiter will invariably ask if you want the tea sweetened or unsweetened. Real Southerners, I suspect, always get their tea presweetened without flinching. Louisianians traveling through the South, however, are more likely to ask for “unsweetened,” just because that's what they are used to, as they reach for the pink or blue packets next to the real sugar.
Why, though? Why does sweetened tea, like kudzu, spread from the east but stop at the Louisiana state line? Why is the tea presweetened in restaurants in Mobile, Birmingham, Montgomery and Pensacola but (except for fast food places that buy their tea premade) never in New Orleans? What sort of cultural root is there that explains the difference?
At a dinner that included a prominent Southern writer, I once raised the question. (Because the dinner was casual and the conversation not said to be on the record, I won't mention his name, although he wouldn't care, but because he is a Southerner, I am being gentlemanly.) Without hesitating, the writer offered an answer that may or may not be the full explanation but certainly made sense. The words rolled with his drawl as he answered, "It's the Baptists."
He explained that since Baptists do not drink liquor, they have more of a fondness for sweetened drinks. There was a sense of discovery at the dinner table as it was noted that the presweetened tea states tend of have larger Baptist populations than does Louisiana, where the Catholic culture sees wine as a sacrament, not a sin. In Louisiana it is perfectly normal to sell bourbon at a drug store; in Mississippi it is a crime. The South is identified with mint juleps sipped on a veranda or at the race track, but for poor folks after those sweltering Southern days of working the red dirt soil, a chilled sweetened tea was their champagne.
There may be other answers to the mystery, but at least I will feel less perplexed next time I dine in places east of Pascagoula. Still unanswered is why the kudzu doesn't cross into Louisiana, though I think I have an inkling of an idea: It's the Episcopalians.
Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival- Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde is available at all area bookstores. Books can also be ordered via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 895-2266)
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