Mediterranean Deli (Med Deli to anyone who is not just passing through town) sits in Chapel Hill, less than a mile from the campus of the University of North Carolina, on Franklin Street, the major road of this college town. It’s notable for a number of reasons. It’s a popular meeting place. It’s a frequent source of catering vans blocking your potential parking space. And the sweet tea there can be a little bit different. While patrons still have the option of standard fare offered up and down Franklin Street – sugar soaked by Luzianne tea (as the containers proclaim), there is also a house special. It’s still sweet tea, but with rose water added to the mix.
Med Deli’s sweet tea achieves the trick of simultaneously offering customers the comfort of the familiar and the thrill of the exotic. You can find sweet tea all over the South, more reliably than whichever brand of cola you happen to prefer. You can only find rose water sweet tea at Med Deli. It tastes of the South, of former Southern luxuries such as sugar and treats for Southern senses such as ice. It tastes of the “other,” of Middle-Eastern delicacies such as Turkish Delight and hot teas infused with flowers and spices. On a college town’s main street lined with multiple Indian restaurants and pizza places, the global is local, and the local is cosmopolitan. But with much of the population still drawn from North Carolina, and the soil itself having sources Southern crops like tobacco, it’s all Southern in the end.
Sweet tea is the domestic drink of the South. Yet it has always been exotic to the American South. It’s made from a base of the leaves of an imported plant. Even the water in use has not always been purely local – the rare ice that chilled it in the first century of its existence had to be properly shipped and stored. Like the Hurricane, sweet tea was preceded by punch mixtures, alcohol blended with green tea and cream. It was only with the advancement of electricity and refrigeration into many homes, the widespread delivery of ice, and the start of Prohibition that sweet tea could become a non-alcoholic regional, not a class-specific, drink[i]. Even ideas for that, though, had basis elsewhere. One of the first printed recipes for an iced tea using black tea rather than green comes from a cookbook which originated in Boston[ii].
But from its financially limited and lamentably nation-wide history sweet tea has become a Southern icon, a talking point, a selling point. Commercials for Luzianne (a tea brought to you in that other American invention, the tea bag) proudly discuss how suitable it is for iced tea, presenting a slow sell on a wide Southern porch. The horror of a Southerner coming north and finding they must sweeten their iced tea on their own (or of a Northerner coming South and being given sweet tea when they simply ordered iced) is such a commonly known tale of culture shock that it can be difficult to find someone who has actually experienced it; it is simply assumed to have happened. Or maybe it happened to a friend of a friend, warning Southerners and Northerners alike of the culinary danger of wandering too far. Commentators identify “the South” not by use of the Mason-Dixon line, but by where one can find sweet tea that doesn’t come from a can or McDonald’s. It’s a simple drink, but such a simple balance can be simply overturned, and a bad glass of sweet tea can ruin your day. That’s why it should be left to those who can do it right. Sweet tea is as much a “Southern Tradition” as Cheerwine, that regional soda made in North Carolina, bills itself to be – a softer, sweeter variation of American products. How can something that is defined by the constant transformation of its components be an icon?
True sweet tea, the kind that doesn’t come from a refrigerated bottle in a convenience store but is poured from container into a glass of ice, is an artifact always progressing to a new stage of being, a new taste. The tea must be steeped, the sugar must be blended in while it’s hot, it must be cooled, ice must be added to keep it chill, the melting ice must inevitably water the drink down, the amount of drink left to be tasted must dwindle. As the glass sweats and then dries off in the air, as the contents go from chilled to room temperature, you feel and taste something different. The undercurrent of astringency on your tongue grows weaker. The napkin beneath your glass absorbs the last of the sweat, rather than it leaving your fingers chill.
At Med Deli, the tea is steeped, and the sugar blended with it while it’s still hot. Traditional. But after it has been made, one container of it is topped off with rosewater. Sweetness is layered on top of sweetness, and the relatively bitter aspect of the tea’s taste is further subdued by the taste of flower petals. The fullness of the rose water lingers on the sides of your tongue, a round sensation of taste a little more like wine than water. As the ice (an amount of your choosing, since the process is self-serve) melts, the drink becomes less “sweet tea” and more “sweet rose water.” It is not the more widely-known shift of sweet tea’s weakening, but it comes from the same process.
Sweet tea manages to reach its iconic status by becoming an imagined object, an idea that is set on the table before the full glass ever touches it. Sweet tea is a storied object. It becomes storied through the rumors of how a friend of a friend reacted upon finding no sweet tea in the North, through debates over the best makers or recipes, through marketing, and through anecdotes published in Southern Living[iii]. The stories developed out of sweet tea’s ubiquity, but without the stories there is no icon. In spite of its tagline, Cheerwine cannot compete, not because it is not bound by region (it is), but because it is unstoried. There are no reports of former Confederate soldiers at a picnic in Missouri requiring hundreds of gallons of a soft drink – they needed iced tea[iv]. The stories you hear place a shadow of sweet tea on your tongue before it is tasted. The ideas and opinions you have of sweet tea flavor every new mixture of it.
Med Deli morphs the idea again, reclaiming the “exoticness” that the tea and ice have lost over the years. For all the abundance of roses in the South, flowering through the long summer, rose water is an exceptional addition to food. If these are ideas which aren’t practiced here, they must come from someplace else, someplace foreign. In Turkey and other Middle Eastern regions, you might drink a medicinal tea made from rose hips or baked goods produced using rose water. In Chapel Hill, someone thought to put the Middle Eastern “dessert” water into the local “dessert” drink. Sweet tea becomes a delicacy once more, made with ingredients that most people who drink it wouldn’t know where to find. It works for some people. It works for enough people to make it a talking point.
And this is how Med Deli’s sweet tea forms its own story. “You have to try this, they put rose water in it, it’s really good.” “I tried Med Deli’s sweet tea today, it was great.” It enters the realm in which the icon is made, even if it is recognizably different from the icon. It is as authentically Southern as a particular restaurant’s barbeque – it is a direct experience, in the moment and always of the moment, only available on Southern soil.
By Laura Pearce
[i] Tomlinson, Tommy. “Sweet Tea,” Our State. http://www.ourstate.com/southern-roots-sweet-tea/
[ii] Martin, Laura. Tea: The Drink That Changed the World (North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2007), 189.
[iii] Burnette, Linda Jones. “Taste of the South: Iced Tea,” Southern Living. http://www.southernliving.com/food/kitchen-assistant/taste-of-the-south-iced-tea-recipes-00417000072345/
[iv] Martin, Laura. Tea: The Drink That Changed the World (North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2007), 189-190.
Second image taken from Christie’s auction house – http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/an-american-silver-repousse-punch-bowl-late-5530699-details.aspx
All other images taken by the author.