Note: the recipe for my lovely, nourishing, satisfying (if not too photogenic) Almond Iced Tea is told, italicized, in the photo captions, while the text tells a story. It is loosely part of my #DinnerwithDragonwagon series. Though I usually drink tea not at dinner but in late morning/early afternoon… too caffeinated for later in the day, for me.
My mother’s great friend, the children’s book editor, Susan Carr Hirschman, taught me how to make really good “regular” iced tea, long long ago.
I was not yet a teenager. She and her husband Paul, childless, occasionally had a child in for an overnight or two. I was one such lucky recipient of their time and space, and of Susan’s cooking and general irreverent, original, opinionated outlook.
I’d had this iced tea at her apartment one hot summer afternoon in Manhattan, when we’d come back drained after some city adventure. After a few sips I asked her how she had made it, for it was like nothing I’d ever tasted, and extraordinarily refreshing.
“You buy the cheapest tea you can find. Not even Lipton, get the A & P brand. You brew it strong, at least double the number of tea bags to the amount of water you’d use for a cup of hot tea. But you don’t brew it too long. Then you add fresh mint and sliced lemon to the pitcher.”
She was not wrong, as I already knew from the first sip that hot afternoon, when I held the icy glass, sweating beads of condensation, to my cheek. I still make iced tea this way, a few times each summer.
Iced tea, especially done thus, was a little exotic, then, in New York. It was not ubiquitous. And because it was the North, it was served unsweetened, definitely not “sweet tea.” You might add a little sugar, stirring it in with those long-handled spoons named for this task (“iced tea spoons!”). But it never, ever came sweet in New York.
And oh my it was refreshing.
Then I moved to the South when I was 16. There iced tea was ubiquitous. And very sweet. Too much so for me: though I love dessert, I almost never enjoy drinking sweet liquids. Have never liked soft drinks for this reason, though fresh lemonade, where the all that sugar is balanced by bracing tartness, is the exception to the rule. Too, Southern iced tea rarely if ever came with fresh mint in practice, though I’d often see it described as such in Southern cookbooks, as years went on.
Then I lived in South India for awhile, where it said there are three seasons: hot, hotter, hottest. Not only the weather but the tea was scaldingly hot, yet (like spicy food) was said to cool you off, because it made you sweat, the body’s own little AC system at work.
In any case, ice was a rarity.
It was all about the tea, strong and caffeinated as coffee, meant less to refresh than to revive, wake up. Because it contained milk, high in protein, it was also more of a light meal (indeed one meal, “tea”, served at 4:00, was a meal) than a mere beverage.
This was tea that was strong, with flavor-layers I had never experienced. Of course; it was grown nearby, and not ground into dust and put into bags; it was leaf-tea, steeped and strained. It was also prepared over an open fire of coconut hulls, so there was a faint smokiness to it. In the part of India where I was, they rarely spiced tea, so it was not what we know as chai.
But, as I said, they did add milk.
Whole milk. Hot milk. A lot of it.
The default was to serve tea in India, as in the American South, was very sweet — far too sweet for me. I could usually manage to finagle getting the hot milky tea unsweetened. However, I got many “crazy foreigner” looks from waiters and servants. I was used to it.
But so what? I was a convert. Milky tea! Who would have thought?
Somewhere in there: Caffeine issues. If I drank tea too late in the day, sleep was MIA that night.
When I owned and ran an inn (1989-1998), I noticed many people seemed to have this reaction to caffeine.
So, at the Inn we made a delectable, very beautiful Iced Herbal Cooler, red as hummingbird food, as an alternate. Hibiscus, mint, frozen apple juice concentrate, assorted citrus fruit slices. I’ll write about it here at some point. All guests had an icy pitcher of this waiting in their room when they arrived and lord, it too was refreshing on those hot days, and caffeine-free, and guests loved it.
No sugar added as such, but plenty sweet because of the apple juice. I loved it and still make it occasionally.
Green tea came into fashion. All those anti-oxidants.
Lots of people stopped eating, or cut back on, dairy products.
I spent a memorable month, in the mid-80’s, as spokesperson for the California Almond Board. I learned that almond growers have a peculiar pronunciation: amman, rhyming with “ham in.” I asked one grower why they pronounced it that way. He said, “You get up on those tall ladders and it scares the L out of you.” That this was practiced made it no less funny to me.
Almond milk came into vogue.
And so tastes change, influenced by experience, geography, travel, who and what you are exposed to, personal taste, even fads.
I live in Vermont now. Usually, even the hottest day (and most summers there aren’t many of those, only maybe a week with temperatures above 90) cools down at night. Though not so much as it did when I was a child, when, at summer camp in Vermont or Maine, we would usually have to wear cardigans at night.
But this July we have had more unpleasantly hot days than usual. (How, I wonder, did I bear the South and India, often in residences without AC? I loved both places, but the heat was exhausting).
I recently made some hot milky tea for myself, in the middle of this heat wave. It did indeed revive me, but I couldn’t finish the double-cup pot, so I put the undrunk portion in the fridge and had it, cold, the next day
Boy, it was good.
I tend to find things I like to eat and eat them (or drink them) over and over and over again, and then eventually move on.
Now I wanted milky cold iced tea.
With almond milk. Just because.
Hey, what if I made the almond flavor a little — not too much — more almondy?
Now it’s Almond Iced Tea. Is it a recipe for the ages, like I think some of these iced teas are? Maybe. It’s very good.
But, maybe not.
I just know this: now, this summer, when I want something cold, refreshing, and caffeinated, this is going to be my pick.