Up north, when you order iced tea, it’s almost invariably unsweetened (or, as we say in the South, “unsweet;” adding the “ened” is just too much effort. For that matter, we usually just say “ice tea”…too much exertion to say that “d”). Hideous stuff, unsweet iced tea. Oh, sure, you can add Sweet’n’Low or Equal or some other artificial sweetener. But that only makes a distasteful beverage distastefuller (yes, I know that’s not a word). And you can add all the sugar you want, but all you’ll get is unsweet tea with a thick layer of gelatinous sucrose goo at the bottom of the glass.
Down South (the discerning reader will note that I used a lower case “n” when I spelled “north,” but a capital “s” when I spelled “South;” the discerning reader will make of that what she or he will), if you want unsweet iced tea (and why would you?), you have to specify it: “Unsweet tea, please.” Because in these parts, when you order iced tea, it’s pretty much a given that it’ll be sweet, the way God hisownself intended iced tea to be. And yet we almost always order it as “sweet tea” (again, “sweet,” not “sweetened;” see above). I don’t know why. It’s essentially redundant to order “sweet tea” in the South. Of course it’ll be sweet.
And these days, in a lot of places, it’s almost too sweet. Sometime in the last 20 years or so, somebody, somewhere started adding more sugar—way more sugar—in the sweet tea brewing process, and it spread like kudzu. I’ve ordered sweet tea that could pass for syrup. Me, to the Waffle House waitress: “No need for syrup for my waffle, ma’am; you already brought my sweet tea.” Or, since I’m at Waffle House, “Thanks, but you done brung my sweet tea.”
I blame high fructose corn syrup. Not long before sweet tea became tea molasses, American soft drink makers switched from cane sugar to HFCS, because HFCS is cheaper than cane sugar. So, the cost of producing ultra-sweet soft drinks dropped and producers were able to reduce their price, sometimes ludicrously so. The price of soft drinks went down, consumption went up, and apparently sweet tea, in order to compete, got sweeter. And sweeter. And sweeter still.
So what to do? How to fight this insidious trend? Oh, sure, you can order half sweet, half unsweet tea. I’m pretty sure if you do that, they ask you to put on the scarlet letters. You know, “H M:” High Maintenance. Next thing you know, you’ll ask for your salad dressing on the side.
Or you can ask for an Arnold Palmer: half iced tea, half lemonade. Just be sure the iced tea part is unsweet. While it might be anathema to what a true Southerner ought to drink, it’s (a little) better than tea treacle.
Me? I’m just going with the flow…pun intended. I just order my sweet tea and enjoy it, disirregardless (again, not a word, but I’m trying to make it one, to fight against the tyranny of the hideous, ubiquitous “irregardless”) of the mayhem being wrought upon my teeth and blood sugar level. I figure this too shall pass (the too-sweet tea thing, not the tea itself…although I guess it, too, shall pass…pun intended). After all, they say that soft drink sales have been declining for a while now, possibly because of the seemingly insatiable demand for bottled water, flavored water, vitamin-mineral-enhanced water, water-water-everywhere-and-too-many-drops-to-drink water…we are one hydrated-ass country.
So maybe there’s hope for the return of less sweet sweet tea.
A final thought: “gelatinous sucrose goo” would be a good name for a rock band.