It’s been said that Dr. Pepper is the table wine of the South, but if that’s the case (and I’m not arguing against it) then iced tea would have to be the water. Every meal is usually accompanied by a cold glass with its condensation building up and slowly dripping down to form a nice ring around the bottom. If you’re coaster-less, a bit fidgety (like me) and find the conversation dragging, you can also use it to entertain yourself by creating interesting watery patterns on the glass or table. There’s rarely a meal that goes by, especially when we’re out dining at a restaurant, that my companions and I won’t order a glass. In fact, the bigger the glass the better. I’d even be ok if you just set the pitcher down in the middle of the table so we don’t have to trouble anyone for refills. Heck, just throw a straw in that thing.
I remember standing in Manhattan once having just ordered tea and being completely befuddled as to why someone handed me coffee. I didn’t feel like fussing about it, but I did wonder what to do with this rather hot small cup. It took me a long moment before my brain clicked in and said a few things: You’re north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Tea also comes in “hot”, too. I think you forgot your overalls, Bethy Sue Bubba Jean. I was later able to nearly duplicate this same experience by sitting in a restaurant in Greenwich Village and specifically asking for an iced tea. Ok, it wasn’t exactly the same. I got a look like I was trying their very soul with my request and eventually I got my iced tea. I still marveled that the refills weren’t coming. I mean, surely there were pitchers of it lying around nearby like the restaurants at home, right? No honey, you’re not in Texas anymore. This was the early 90’s and that’s when I fortunately discovered Snapple and used it as my Northeastern tea substitute. It was nothing like tea (at least the flavors weren’t back then when you were just a twinkle in your parent’s eye), but it also wasn’t like coffee, hot tea or soda; drinks I wasn’t interested in at the time. No iced tea, but you have Snapple up here? That’ll work.
Earlier this week a friend of mine took me to a new favorite restaurant – a nice little Cuban place that had received great reviews from the local paper. We sat down and they handed us a menu – one menu. The waiter apologized and explained there was only the one menu for the entire restaurant. Since we were the only customers (clearly because we were ahead of the lunch crowd) we rolled with it. When we opened it up we found the menu was hand-written. No problem. The writing was legible. My co-worker apologized and explained that the last time he’d been to this place, they had several menus and they had in fact been printed. We chose one of the nine items listed and that’s when our iced tea arrived.
The waiter sat down the pint glass and I literally just stared at it unable to speak for a long while. I worked through my mental checklist: Did I order beer? Specifically, did I order Bass? Am I still in my own city? Could I be on vacation? When every question came back with “no”, I pulled the glass over to me to investigate the contents more closely. The liquid was a lovely amber, there was no ice in it (thus, in my mind it couldn’t be tea) and the glass let on that the contents were room temperature. I threw a straw in it and had a sip. Mmmm nasty, but it definitely had its roots in tea – maybe a great grand leaf had once made a lovely tea and this was its idiot offspring, bless its heart – grand leaves these days, you just never know how they’re going to turn-out once they head down the wrong path.
My co-worker was appalled and offered to leave upon seeing my expression (sometimes I lose control of my face). I decided we should stay, because this had the making of some sort of adventure (it turned out not to be). Plus, the food was what had earned the praise not the tea. The food was actually fine if you had Tums and something to bludgeon the rice out of the hardened square shape (it was molded to look like the first step on a Mayan terrace – at least I’m pretending that was the artistic motivation behind that thing). By the time we left, having still been the sole customers in the restaurant the entire hour we were there, our waiter had never come back by nor had my co-worker’s tea been refilled. (I didn’t have that problem; it was gross. No need to refill my glass, thank you.) We vowed never to come back and that was largely based on the bad “iced” tea experience. You see here in the South and Texas, which is South-lite, iced tea is a fairly serious matter; it’s our water. If you screw it up (like say, you don’t put ice in the “iced” tea or ever refill the glass) then it might kill your restaurant. I’m not saying that’s why there were no customers, but I do have my suspicions.