The Family Tea Pitcher

People say the mountains are cooler, but as mountain dwellers, we know summers are hot. The screen door slams shut, and out walks my aunt, hands and arms laden with cups full of sweet, sugary, heavenly tea. Sweet tea is part of our family, a thing of ritual. Aunt Tee Tee, my mother’s sister, is the only family member allowed to make sweet tea: She is the artful chemist who knows the right proportions of sugar, tea bags, and water. (We all know that my mother makes it too bitter by over steeping, and my Aunt Sherry never adds enough sugar.) When it comes to tea, we leave it up to the master. Every batch of tea is poured, still warm, into a brown and cream stoneware pitcher whose history extends far past my own and sits, a fixture for decades, in my grandmother’s Asheville kitchen.

To the naked eye, the pitcher is nothing special. My mother Sandra recalls this style of stoneware being very vogue in the seventies. My grandmother Kathleen fell in love with the pitcher when she saw it at Biltmore Hardware on a trip downtown—she bought two for herself, and one for every woman in the family. The large pitcher assumed a spot of pride atop the lazy Susan countertop at her house, near the stovetop where the tea was worked to perfection. Everyday my grandmother reached for a box of Lipton tea, mixed in the appropriate amounts of boiling water and sugar, and finally poured the hot concoction into the pitcher.

TeaPitcher

There’s no real recipe for our sweet tea. My great-grandmother Emma-Lou passed down her method of eye-balling measurements to my grandmother, who then showed Aunt Tee Tee. When asked to recall the recipe, Tee Tee says she makes it with exactly seven tea bags each time, though she couldn’t tell me why. It’s just the way she was taught, and it seems to have worked all these years, so seven tea bags it is. She pours two cups of boiling water into a pot on the stovetop and lets the tea steep for a few minutes. Next, she takes a wooden spoon and presses the back of it against the tea bags on the edge of the pot to extract all the liquid goodness. She then adds roughly a cup of sugar to the hot water and tea mixture, and stirs to ensure the sugar dissolves evenly. Finally, the jug is filled with cold water, the tea mixture is added, and everything is stirred together. The tea then settles and cools inside the pitcher, and we drink it by the glassful.

The pitcher has a distinct sound and its own unique southern accent.

I always get the first glass, which makes me the official flavor judge. Impatience is my weakness, and I usually get a glass of tea before it is fully cooled. Oddly, I like it a little warm. When I drop a few ice cubes in, the warm tea melts them down in an instant. I swirl it around to watch the escaped tea leaves move around in the bottom of the glass and take a sip. The tea immediately tastes sweet, but not overwhelmingly. It is sugary, but not enough to cause a stomachache. Tea leaves are present in the little hints of bitterness. After my first sip, Tee Tee looks at me expectantly for approval. Once it has finally cooled down enough for everyone else in our large family, the tea is quickly emptied from the stoneware pitcher.

The pitcher has a distinct sound and its own unique southern accent. A wooden spoon is always used to stir the tea, and its stoneware walls sound dense and full when the spoon swirls the liquid around.  The clanging of the wood on the sides of the jug emits a low, deep sound familiar to everyone that spends time in the kitchen. My mother and aunts cook and laugh and gossip, while the clanging of the wooden spoon against the stoneware pitcher hums in the background. They love to tell stories about old friends, many of whom still live in their childhood neighborhood, Bent Creek. It is not uncommon for one of these friends to stop in for a glass of tea and to visit with “Mrs. B,” my grandmother. My mother and her sisters alternate taking care of my aging grandmother each day of the week, but they all come on Saturdays to do the heavy cleaning. They take their breaks in the kitchen, while making or drinking sweet tea, and exchange stories about the funny things my grandmother did that week. As her dementia worsens, the stories they tell amongst themselves become more and more important as a way to make light of something serious that is slowly taking away the memories of my grandmother. Chit chat and laughter are as much a part of the sound of the pitcher as the sweet tea swishing inside.

To me, it is not just a cream and brown stoneware pitcher. It is humid summer Saturdays, lounging together on the patio.

Pitcher2Sweet tea creates a bond among southerners, but my grandmother’s simple stoneware pitcher creates an even stronger bond in our family. Our modest family pitcher is richly steeped with distinct sounds, cherished memories, and familial bonds. The beauty of this pitcher is the complexity of its simplicity─this inanimate object fosters conversation and stores memories that span across generations. To me, it is not just a cream and brown stoneware pitcher. It is humid summer Saturdays, lounging together on the patio. Laughter between old friends, still strong over the years. The sweet smile of my grandmother, soaking up her family’s presence. It is the foundation of our family, solidified with each glass poured and each memory created. This mass-produced pitcher may not be southern by design, but it is an undeniable piece of my family’s Appalachian South.

Stephanie Watkins