Why I Moved 500 Miles for Sweet Tea

When I lived in Brooklyn last year, people back home in North Carolina always asked me the same question: “What is the hardest part about living there?”

Some were sure they knew the answer already. “It’s the people, right?” But that was never it. The people up North are great—a little less chatty than Southerners, so I never had to worry about making small talk with the barista at Starbucks while he poured my coffee, but no less nice. Honestly, the hardest adjustment to living in Brooklyn was the total lack of quality sweet tea.

I sort of knew what I was getting into, moving up there, I just didn’t realize how attached I was to the South's favorite drink. Almost everywhere in the North, if you ask for sweet tea at a restaurant and your waiter doesn’t just look confused, he’ll do one of two things: either bring you hot tea and a little tray of sugar packets, or bring you iced tea and a little tray of sugar packets. But neither is what we call sweet tea. Not the sweet tea I grew up with, anyway.

I’d lived in the same Small Town, USA my entire life. Growing up like that, you don’t write off sweet tea as something to order at the McDonald’s drive-thru. When you’re going to the same three local restaurants every time you eat out, homemade sweet tea becomes a lifestyle. You either buy it homemade or make it yourself. Nothing else is really the real thing.

But if you don’t grow up with it, I imagine the idea of “real” sweet tea must sound quite strange—like making your own Coca-Cola, instead of buying it in a bottle. Making it is pretty simple, actually. First you brew the hot tea with twice as many tea bags as you normally would, then you stir in a whole lot of pure sugar (like, a whole lot of pure sugar), and finally you mix in ice, letting it melt, until the tea chills. So brewing the tea hot is just hot tea; sweet tea is always served cold. And you can’t mix the sugar in after the tea is already cold, because then it won’t sufficiently dissolve. Making good sweet tea is a process—a very specific process that apparently no one in the North can figure out.

There are a few restaurants in Brooklyn that serve so-called “sweet tea,” but they never get it right. When I say you stir in a whole lot of sugar, I mean that if the final product does not have the same consistency as syrup, you’ve done it wrong. My sympathetic Northern pals would ask why I didn’t just pick up a can of Arizona at the bodega, if I missed sweet tea so much. But that’s even farther from the real thing. My friends have never witnessed a family argument caused by Aunt Mae bringing a store-bought gallon of sweet tea to the barbecue instead of one she brewed in a milk jug, but I have. Money simply cannot buy authenticity.

When I’d go home to North Carolina for visits, I drank all the sweet tea I could get my hands on. I had to, because I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunity again until I traveled back down. I could have brewed my own up there—and I tried, once—but no matter how much sugar I added, it never really tasted the same as it does in the South. Maybe it’s the water, and genuine sweet tea just can’t exist above the Mason-Dixon line.

The more likely answer is almost too cliché to admit: Maybe I couldn’t taste good sweet tea when I was in New York because it wasn’t really about the sweet tea. Maybe sweet tea was a metaphor for something larger, something I couldn’t explain.

See, when I moved to New York, my truck stayed at home. Every dirt road I’d ever known became a memory until I came back to them. When I moved, I left behind rope swings over the river, diners with NASCAR memorabilia covering the walls, strips of road with churches on every corner. Sweet tea was a little piece of my southern comfort zone that I could carry with me all the way up North—but even then, it was nothing like being back in the South.

Small Town, USA is more than just home-brewed sweet tea. It’s a full blanket of stars every night, Lynyrd Skynyrd playing in the grocery store, cicadas chirping and lightning bugs twinkling, cow poker on a long car ride. It’s something you can’t replicate anywhere else. There comes a time where if you want to get out, you have to choose between Southern culture and Northern culture. For a little while, I chose the North. Then I chose to return to my roots—maybe for a little while, maybe for forever.  But for right now, I can’t live without my sweet tea.

I may have channeled my homesickness into a longing for sweet tea, but psychological or not, it was still the hardest park about moving. But I’m home in North Carolina now, so I’m back to driving my truck, jamming to “American Girl” and going 70 with the windows down.

Most importantly—I’m back to drinking sweet tea with every meal. And now, it tastes just as good as it always has.

Feature photo by Julia D'Alkmin via Unsplash