A couple of things should be understood right away.
One: no matter how it’s spelled, it’s pronounced “ice tea,” not “iced tea.” A true Texan never pronounces that final voiced alveolar stop, otherwise known as “d,” but instead elides right into the soft “t.”
Two: Texas is not the South. (Or, at least, Dallas isn’t. I might cede East Texas.) So Southern-style sweet tea is not what I’m talking about. Texas iced tea is the color of Baltic amber, clear as gin, so tannic it dries on the tongue. It’s bracing, by which I mean it clears your head in the heat, which is why it’s a Dallasite’s natural daily refreshment, the way coffee is natural to foggy Seattle.
When I say it’s not sweet tea, I don’t mean it can’t be sweetened. It just isn’t served that way.
In typically ornery Texas fashion, we like to sweeten our tea ourselves, thank you very much, and don’t go topping it off when we’ve finally got it just the way we like it, either.
When I was little, back in the days when soft drinks weren’t served to children for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and when drinking a Big Gulp to start the day was regarded as some kind of uncivilized, rock-and-roller behavior, children were allowed iced tea with their suppers. I guess we didn’t know about caffeine then or else Texas summer nights were light long enough to assuage any fear of hyper kids. Not that we used the word “hyper.” Anyway, we children sugared the hell out of our tea, stirring in spoonful after spoonful with long-handled silver iced teaspoons until the liquid reached saturation point and the undissolved sugar crystals settled like an ocean floor at the bottoms of our glasses. Then we spooned the undissolved tea-flavored sugar out, bit by bit.
My comparison of tea to oceans is not exaggeration. At least, not by much. The whole point of an iced tea glass was to be huge. I remember the family’s aahs of admiration when my grandparents set the Sunday table with new iced tea glasses that must have held a quart apiece. We called them “bathtubs.” As in, “Can I fill up your bathtub?”
Whereas hot tea is for sissies and Anglophiles, iced tea is a Dallas businessman’s drink, the perfect accompaniment to a pit-cooked brisket sandwich, enjoyed with your tie flung over your shoulder. Tea is best over regular ice cubes; crushed ice melts too fast. Today’s trendy mixologists know this and get all fussy with their ice, but everyone knew it once.
Some people put lemon in their tea, but tea made to the proper strength doesn’t need any. The tannins alone provide enough tartness. And forget any other fancy foolishness. Today, tea is curated, like coffee and chocolate, but some things don’t need to be artisanal. The best iced tea is still made from Lipton’s bags. Take that, peach-mango. And though iced tea sounds like the simplest recipe in the world (boil water; pour over tea bags; let steep until it’s deep amber), it’s one of the most screwed-up beverages you’re likely to be served. It’s often weak, or weakened in seconds by being served over crushed ice. It’s frequently cloudy. It’s apt to be bitterly stale. If you’re not ordering it from someone who knows, it’s likely to be all of these things, and sweet to boot. In other parts of the country, iced tea is regarded as a summer drink. Order it in the winter, and you’ll get a glass of ice and a cup of hot tea served with a sullen attitude implying that Texans are just as stupid as they appear on TV.
The old Highland Park Cafeteria on Knox Street served the best iced tea in Dallas. This magazine made it official several times. It wasn’t served in bathtubs, but in clear Collins-type glasses with that little bulge near the top. I hear they’ve improved the original product over at HP’s descendant in Casa Linda, and now you can get mint leaves in your tea. But it’s my firm opinion that you couldn’t improve on the original. Just the sight of that sweat-beaded glass, filled with ice and strong creek-brown tea, was as refreshing as you needed it to be. Refills were free.