In Montgomery, Alabama, a restaurant prides itself in serving “Southern cuisine,” as though a word originating in France, the land of quiche, souffle, and Inspector Clouseau should be used to describe black-eyed peas and cornbread.
Cuisine begs to be preceded by haute or Lean and used in the same sentences as symphony and low fat, respectively, none of which seems suitable to a diet with more grease than a politician’s palm.
This particular eatery serves all the customary dishes: collards, fried okra, and cornbread muffins that leave oil slicks that would have Greenpeace burning effigies of the Exxon Valdez outside. The menus have stains, and you can probably find some of yesterday’s special on the flatware. And man, is it good. (The fresh food is even better).
The first time I ate there, my anticipation mounted exponentially as I smelled each sweet potato, country fried steak, and banana pudding. My culinary bubble burst, however, as soon as I asked for sweet tea.
Tea is one of the many things that distinguish South from North, among them goobers, the appropriate use of “y’all”, and politicians (the only real difference being that the accent allow Northern politicians to prevaricate faster).
Additionally, some of our tastes and habits seem peculiar to the Northerner unfamiliar with our ways.
For instance, when Coca-Cola came in nothing but glass bottles, well before the New Coke fiasco gave marketing geeks more than they could ruminate over, we would put salted peanuts in the bottle and imbibe the soda-nut concoction (ambrosia, some would say) with appropriate amounts of lip smacking and references to the oppressive heat.
This practice puzzles, offends, and sometimes nauseates Northerners, achieving almost the same response as a description of scrambled eggs served with pig brains.
I once treated myself, without issuing proper warnings, to this Southern delight (peanuts, not brains) in the presence of a friend from somewhere in Connecticut. I say “somewhere” because that far North, precise location becomes irrelevant. No sooner had she seen the peanuts in my Coke than she began ranting hysterically about some mishap at the bottler, thumbing through the yellow pages for a good plaintiff’s attorney, no doubt hoping I was suffering fiscally compensable mental anguish and emotional distress.
But, I digress.
Without question, the one true test of Southern eating is the tea and how it is served. The rule for proper tea presentation is really quite simple: it should be sweet, plenteous, and with the viscosity to form a pile when poured on the table. I was in my teens before I learned that tea didn’t grow with sugar already in it. I was weaned on sweet tea, and during college exams, could be seen in the library surrounded by books, ingesting Milo’s famous iced tea (a Birmingham institution) via intravenous hookup.
The very fact that one must now request sweet tea specifically is itself an indication of the failing standards of decorum. In the South, “sweet tea” is unnecessary verbiage, a redundancy on par with “red-blooded” and “confiscatory tax.”
When I ordered sweet tea that fateful day in Montgomery, the waitress looked at me and uttered awful words, in slow motion and with cavernous echo effects: We. Only. Have. Unsweet. Tea.
Adding insult to injury, she proclaimed this while gesturing to the artificial sweetener on the table.
I was shocked, astonished, dumbfounded, as if someone had questioned the Holy Trinity, the Constitution, and the Infield Fly Rule.
Frantically I looked back at the menu to see if what I suspected could possibly be true. To my continued amazement, it was. Not only had this restaurant committed the unpardonable beverage sin, it transgressed while serving fried chicken livers.
That someone could serve the cooked innards of a grounded bird, but not sweet tea, is almost unthinkable. Are they trying to be healthy?
And nothing is more insulting to a sweet tea connoisseur than for someone to suggest that artificial sweetener can be substituted for good ol’ granulated sugar (or, in protected markets, corn syrup derivatives).
Everybody knows that you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube, and you can’t sweeten cold tea.