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Mystery of the pre-sweetened tea

Errol Laborde

As proof that Louisiana is a subset within the South, there’s the kudzu. Throughout the woods in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia the vine covers fallen trees, abandoned Chevies and anything else that didn’t move fast enough to get out the way. Yet in Louisiana, kudzu hardly grows at all – as though there’s 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 pre-sweetened without flinching. Louisianans traveling through the South, however, are more likely to ask for “unsweetened,” just because that’s what they’re used to, as they reach for the pink or yellow packets next to the real sugar.

Why though? Why does sweetened tea, like kudzu, spread from the east but stops at the Louisiana state line? Why is the tea pre-sweetened in restaurants in Mobile, Birmingham, Montgomery and Pensacola but seldom in New Orleans, other than the franchise places? What sort of cultural root is there that explains the difference?

I once posed the question at a dinner where one of the guests, a writer, offered his explanation. The words rolled with his drawl as he answered, “It’s the Baptists.”

He explained that since Baptists don’t drink alcohol, 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 pre-sweetened 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’s perfectly normal to sell bourbon at a drug store; in Mississippi it’s a crime. The South is identified with mint juleps sipped on a veranda or at the races, but for the poor working the red dirt soil, a chilled sweetened tea was their champagne.

Our cover story looks at classic New Orleans food. Unheralded, though important, is the classic non-alcoholic drink that accompanies many Southern meals.

There may be other answers to the mystery of the unsweetened tea, but at least I’ll 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.

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