I was recently in Dallas, TX with my son and we were at a restaurant and he ordered tea. In Clay county, Alabama (where we're from), you usually just ask for "tea" and you get sweet, iced tea. He got his tea, which was not sweetened, and said, "I thought Texas was a Southern state!!" The jury must still be out.....
Sweet tea is as Southern as it gets. Made by adding sugar to bags of black tea brewing in hot water while the mixture is still hot, the tea is served over ice. I'll never forget the first time I ordered "tea" at a restaurant north of the Mason-Dixon line and they brought me a cup of hot, unsweetened tea. I immediately realized my mistake.
Sweet iced tea hasn't always been as easy to get as it is now. In the early 1900s, tea, sugar and ice were all expensive commodities. Ice was especially hard to come by, often having to be shipped great distances. The oldest known recipe for sweet ice tea was published in 1879 in a community cookbook called Housekeeping in Old Virginia by Marion Cabell Tyree, who was born in Texas (ironic). Sweet tea was once consumed as a punch mixed with hard liquor with flavorings of mint and cream (awesome!)
Most restaurants in the South, including fast-food and other national chains, offer a customer the choice of sweet tea or
plain iced tea (usually referred to as "sweet tea" and "unsweet tea",
respectively). It is a signature drink of the region to the point where
the Southern use of the word "tea" is largely used to refer specifically
to cold sweet tea and not to hot or plain varieties. In non-Southern
States, many restaurants do not offer sweet tea as defined above....as I learned the hard way.
Anyway, next time you reach for a tall glass of sweet tea, remember how your granny and papaw would have loved to have been able to run through the drive-thru and grab a glass like you can. Ain't times good..?