I'm a little sad about it though. For me, sweet tea has always been a delicacy, a sign that I have returned to the land of my birth and upbringing. When on the road south of the Mason-Dixon line, I always ask for my favorite non-carbonated beverage, confident that the server will know exactly what I mean. Around here, most folks respond to a request for the sugary treat with a look of confusion or, worse, a negative answer followed by a reminder that, after all, sweetener is on the table. Yeah, right. That'll do the trick. Sweet tea gains its taste by being brewed with copious amounts of cane sugar, not with sweetener added as an afterthought. For many folks growing up in the South, it's hard to imagine summertime without the stuff.
Truth be told, though, I grew up in Pinellas County, Florida, which is southern but hardly Dixie. My hometown and surrounding environs did not inspire a drawl in my dialect or an appreciation for grits. I grew up in suburbia; my dialect comes from television news and Hollywood movies. So I knew vaguely of sweet tea as a kid, but I had no particular understanding of its meaning. It wasn't until 1992 when I took an ill-fated drive to Jacksonville for Navy reserve duty (following up on my active duty hitch), that I came to understand "the South" as a place imbued with time and character.
It was my first solitary road trip, taking Highway 301 from Tampa to Jax. I tooled along the curvy road, avoiding speed traps and wandering small-town cemeteries. I was smitten by "the road" for the first time. Unfortunately some tiny piece of circuitry fried in my car and I found myself stranded less than an hour from my destination. My vision of the next two weeks quickly shifted from annoyance to genuine suckiness. While my Seabee buddies were whooping it up at the free bar at their off-base hotel, I would be stuck in the barracks because I had no wheels. I had to leave my car in a nearby shop.
Every day, I grew more and more certain that the mechanic was ripping me off, planning to siphon every dollar he could from me. I was angry and frustrated because I had no control over my situation. He'd promise me that a solution was forthcoming only to tell me later that his attempts at repair had failed. Day after day I waited, fuming and indignant. At last, when my two weeks of reserve duty were up and I was thrown out of the barracks, I prepared to personally take on the guy who was taking me to the cleaners. Then I talked with the guy, face to face.
Arriving at the mechanic's shop, looking around and getting my first measure of the man, I understood my situation entirely. The mechanic wasn't evil; he simply had no clue what he was doing. That's where I came to appreciate Napoleon's maxim, "Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by incompetence."
Even after two weeks, he had no explanation for why the car wouldn't start. He pulled cables, switched parts, reviewed manuals, and called buddies, but he couldn't crack this puzzle. I informed him angrily that I had no place to stay. But instead of directing me to a motel, he put me up in a house he was fixing. At this point I came to recognize that anger wasn't going to get me home. There I was in an unfinished house, ordering pizza and wondering how I would ever get out of this place. I hated my circumstances, but I could no longer hate this guy. He just didn't know what to do. And he felt so bad about my circumstances that he gave me the key to his house.
I waited and tried to relax, and he called me the next day. He'd had an epiphany the previous night and was now confident that he'd solved the problem at last. Uh, sure, I said, like I hadn't heard that promise before. But having no alternatives I agreed to drive with him to a nearby junkyard. He informed me that we would pick up a tiny computer that governed some automobile function or other. Perhaps this was the culprit, he said.
I forked over about sixty bucks and the mechanic installed the device. And the car started right up. A few adjustments and I was suddenly, shockingly, done with the whole thing. My car, the steel weight that trapped me in purgatory for more than two weeks, was now my ticket home.
You may be asking: what does all this have to do with sweet tea?
Well, here's the answer. I'd clearly been a jerk to this guy for more than two weeks, unforgiving of what (to me) he represented: forces of chaos that buffeted me with no recourse. Yes, he may have been a pretty lousy mechanic, but he tried his best. He'd been patient with me even as I'd been relentless in my calls and barely concealed (and laughably impotent) threats of litigation. Even as he handed me the keys for the last time, I wanted no kind conclusion to our relationship. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. But he wanted to ensure that the car would get me home, so he asked if we could take a lengthy test drive.
We got on the road and headed down a quiet highway for a few miles, him listening to sounds and testing for vibrations that I could not detect. After a while of awkward silence, he said we should get some sweet tea. We were in that place for which the phrase "in the middle of nowhere" was coined, a two-lane highway bordered by tall trees, and he was talking about sweet tea. Whatever, I thought. But sure enough he pointed out a wooden structure further down the road.
It was like one of those homemade stands where you buy fresh-boiled "p-nuts" or a box of oranges, only this one sold sweet tea and nothing else. The mechanic assured me that this was the best tea I'd ever drink and bought me a tall, fat Styrofoam container of the stuff, filled with ice cubes and covered with a plastic lid. I took a sip.
Perhaps I was already in the mood to romanticize the trip, to regale listeners with tales of stress, frustration, and acceptance, followed by some magical moment on a quiet road south of Jacksonville. It's been so long that I hardly recall. But I will never forget that first sip of liquid heaven. It was simple, easy enough for a dude working out of a wooden stand to sell by the side of the road. Yet there was something more to this drink, almost as if it embodied the place where I stood.
The tea was sweet but subtly complex, surprising with its depth. It swirled with seemingly exotic flavors that I could not recognize. The taste mellowed with the melting ice, yet nothing really seemed to be lost. It really was that good. I smiled at the mechanic, and I realized that I had gotten rid of my anger at last. I'd forgiven him for a dollar's worth of sweet tea.
Thinking back on that day provides some reason why I am both heartened and saddened by the fact that you can purchase an entirely passable taste of sweet tea at McDonald's. Something so personally meaningful, even a close approximation, shouldn't be sold at the same place that sells Chicken McNuggets. I'm not even sure half of stuff they sell is technically food.
Even so, while I cannot return South as often as I'd like, and I can never return to that place and time in Jacksonville, I'm mostly happy that McDonald's has decided to package something that reminds me of my past.
It's not the same, but it's really not bad either.
Learn More: St. Petersburg Times, Does McDonald's have the South down to a tea?: This article includes a useful introduction to Florida's "southern question."
Where's the state's North-South line?
"North of Tampa and south of Gainesville," said [Dick] Pillsbury, the Georgia State professor, "it's always been a little waffley there."
"It's much more complicated than simply drawing an imaginary line across the state," said Gary Mormino, the history professor at USF St. Pete who wrote Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. "You've got these pockets."
Like this: Hernando County has a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse in Brooksville, fried green tomatoes are sold at dark-wood-walled Deep South Family Bar-B-Que on State Road 50, and not all that long ago lots of folks nipped on the stuff that came from the stills hidden in the hammock outside of town.
That's the South.