September: Tea for Two (on Proper Sweet Tea)

Some define the boundaries of the American south by way of the Mason Dixon line. Others define its lines by allegiances during the War of Northern Aggression. Frankly, I find both such delineations to be crude and lacking in nuance. No, I do not ascribe to traditional notions of defining the South. Instead, I reckon its boundaries by one simple metric—sweet tea prevalence.

For instance, if you live in a town where less than 75 percent (three-kortahs, if you will) of the local restaurants serve sweet tea, I could argue that you do not live in the land of genteel southern graces. By this metric, I view the western-most boundary of the South as terminating somewhere around East Little Rock—that is, if you take into account the Cracker Barrel on I-40.

There is not a single more recognizable southern drink than sweet tea, except maybe Kentucky bourbon. And if one were to combine the former with the latter, one might find a sort of southern drink Nirvana. One might begin extolling the virtues of the sphagnum moss and seersucker suits and find oneself prone to glowing personifications about the Mighty Mississippi (that twisted lover who kisses crops one minute and breaks levees and your heart the next).

In the summer of ’98 I met a Southern Baptist granny from Atlanta who brewed tea as sweet as a baby’s laugh. I once asked her for the recipe, the proper proportions of sugar to black tea. She leaned in and whispered, “it’s a secret.” I laughed, certain that she was engaging in a bit of Georgian jocularity, and reiterated my request. “After all,” I said, “it’s just tea and sugar, right?” She looked at me with one cocked eyebrow and said, “Oh no, honey. There’s much more to proper sweet tea than that.”

I experimented for three years to decipher her version of the southern staple, and although I found that brown sugar and honey gives a bit extra character, truth is, her secret was nothing more than the use of the most ancient of feminine wiles. Mystery makes everything taste better in the end. Some southern ladies still know that to be true.

This week I’ll brew a batch of sweet tea and watch summer give way to fall. I don’t live in the South, at least not by my metric. So when I sip it, I’ll think of my family in Louisiana. I’ll remember my wife’s Alabama heritage, the dirt roads where she learned to love a good story. I’ll remember my summer in Atlanta and some of the best secrets kept.

Will you join me? Brew yourself a batch of sweet tea and join me for a found poetry prompt. Draw words for your found poem from this piece, the back of the Lipton box, or your favorite copy of Southern Living (is there a northern such version of said magazine?). Perhaps your poetry could extol the virtues of this southern staple drink. Or perhaps you’d like to explore your own regional tea preferences. Whichever you prefer, let this week’s poetry prompt push you into exploring regional culture and geography, all by way of tea.

Now, let’s brew some creative works. Who’s first?

Tweetspeak’s September Tea For Two Prompt

This month’s found poem theme at Tweetspeak is Tea for Twoand we’re using words and phrases from tea (or coffee) related products as the prompt. We’d love you to join with is. How do you participate?

1.  Look through your pantry and grab some tea or coffee packages, or any other tea or coffee related products you may have in your house.

2.  Arrange a found poem containing words from the products (or mark up a magazine as above). Make sure your poems touch on themes of tea or coffee.

3. Tweet your poems to us. Add a #tea42 hashtag so we can find it and maybe share it with the world.

4. If you aren’t a twitter user, leave your found poem here in the comment box.

5.  Each week we’ll share a few of the poems. At the end of the month, we’ll choose a winning poem and ask the winner to record his or her poem to be featured in one of our upcoming Weekly Top 10 Poetic Picks.

Last week, Maureen Doallas played along and wrote this piece that expresses sensual nuance:

Tea, No Sympathy

Bigelow brews up basic black;
Lipton warms with its touch

of tart Tuscan lemon. But I see
these aren’t your cups of tea.

With them, you get no yin, no
yang, no sweet and bitter blend

of Golden Flower, no accents
of lanky Jasmine Fairy Maidens

quick to unfold their charms
in the tallest sipping glasses. You

tend to trend to gourmet tastes,
need all the tea in China to brew

old Harney’s Golden Monkey,
uncovering leaves’ clearest notes

of honey to sweeten and loosen
your Rumi’s tongue. “Take tea

with me” comes in a silken sachet
I need not strain to decipher. Oh,

to get tippy in Assam’s best garden,
to unwrap your golden Dikom buds

as I unwind my pearls and purple sari.

Thank you for all your submissions. Now…who’s first this week?

Photo by Arria Belli, Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Seth Haines


Purchase The Novelist, by L.L. Barkat now!


  1. says

    Northern Virginia, where I live, is definitely not the South and I admit to wanting to sugar my own tea my own way. An hour’s drive or two into the mountains, however, and the Commonwealth slows and shows its southern pride.

    Wonderfully written post, Seth. Thank you for highlighting my contribution to last week’s piece.

  2. L. L. Barkat says

    I like the *idea* of sweet tea. So maybe if I just have the *idea* of writing a sweet-tea poem, that will go nicely with this sentiment 😉

  3. says

    Mine’s too long for Twitter, so here it is. The things in capitals are from my tea boxes & bags–eight different blends at the moment.


    it didn’t feel like a Revolution
    or Tea’s Role In A Healthy Lifestyle
    when i did not put sugar in my tea.
    i simply never did.

    who needs sugar when you have Litchi from China
    White Chai from India (well,
    there’s an elephant on the box)
    French letters on a pouch of Japanese Sencha.

    Steep Yourself, not your bee pollen,
    no cream, no milk, no lemon
    just A Harmonious Blend.

    For Best Karma, Please Recycle.

  4. says

    Sweet Georgia,

    she’s put me on ice
    to still my swelling

    Southern Comfort heart.
    Her charm’s a potent potion,

    a Chatham Artillery Punch
    for Savannah rebs

    more likely to bear arms
    than sip a regent’s weak black tea

    on a sultry summer morn.
    Punch, some called it,

    and spiked it was,
    and even in Charleston

    society imbibed, decanting
    their St. Cecilia at an annual ball

    where dizzy heads on shoulders
    fell, light as blooming camellias.

    Into loaf sugar and rich cream
    some Kentucky housewife stirred

    a bottle of claret, her pitcher
    strained of what earlier was boiled

    and brewed, and belles in Old Virginia
    made do, too, knew to add a squeeze

    of lemon to keep lips puckering.
    As far north as Boston, turns out,

    some liked it hot, more liked it cold,
    and not even Prohibition could end

    what church-going ladies took
    straight up, full-strength, and fully chilled.

    • says

      As badly as I want to be Southern…. neither can I. :)

      Sweet tea reminds me of my grandma though, so I think this prompt has my creative wheels spinning a little.

  5. says

    You say it with a hard ‘g’:
    gen-mai-cha, like the beating

    of a taiko drummer, his headband
    holding in bursting rhythm. I drink

    this tea and have to fall, knees
    and shins flat on the tatami mat,

    buttocks on heels, and the roasty
    aroma of popped rice makes me

    remember, makes me nostalgic for
    a place I’ve never seen.


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