Un-Sweet on Tea

I really don't want sugar in my iced tea. Honest!

I know I asked for it. She handed it through the fast-food window, even smiled a little at my little dog riding in the passenger seat. Egg biscuit, unsweet tea.

Could I have a Sweet'N Low? Sure.

But here I am, two miles down 40E, taking a gulp, and it's happened again. The tea is sweetened already. With sugar. And I've just added a little pink packet on top.

And so continues my 15-year standoff with the greater East Tennessee tea-brewing and -serving community. I started drinking iced tea in imitation of my boss, Nick Glover, a South Carolina gentleman, when I worked at Whittle Communications in the rarefied Colonial Williamsburg-esque environs of what is now a federal building downtown. CEO of the company, he would have iced tea brought to him in a sweating pewter (silver-plated?) pitcher with a white napkin wound around the handle. It was enchanting, it was unsweetened, and I was hooked.

Still am. I love to have someone else fix fresh iced tea over ice and present it to me, over the deli counter, in the drive-through, from a pitcher in a fancy restaurant. I like lemon, even when the seeds choke up my straw.

I just—the blasphemy—don't like my tea sweetened. I don't need that extra 90 or 120 calories. I actually like the tinny bite of artificial sweetener, just a little, and I very much don't like the feel of sugar in my mouth 10 minutes later. And any tea made inside county limits isn't going to be sort of sweet—it's going to be drippingly saturated with fructose or Domino, sugary, sickly sweet. I've witnessed it many a time. That enough for this gallon? Nah, needs another half-cup, Ma, get me the sugar canister...

I don't elaborate on any of these objections when I order. I just ask for unsweetened tea. And I've been served the reverse innumerable times—at Hardee's, at Regas and the Orangery, Shoney's, Salsarita's, the movie theater. It has nothing to do with the cost of the meal or the quality of the service.

I have no idea what it does have to do with. What runs through someone's mind as they bring me the beverage not of my choice? It's a good bet they're not thinking I need the extra calories—I'm pretty well padded—but maybe they're thinking, "'Course she drinks sweet tea, look at her."

Maybe they are assuming, the same way I'm constantly mistaken for a conservative, or an "only Jesus saves" Protestant, that if I'm with this East Tennessee bunch, I probably drink tea like they do. I lean toward the kind explanation, that all these folks who are so devoted to their sweet tea would never give anything less to me. That would be a dirty trick, and I'm too nice for that.

Once touch a sweet tea glass, they have to trash it. So sometimes I just drink it. Other places, they're used to me, and I get exactly what I'm after. My two favorites are probably the Mellow Mushroom and McAllister's, which both brew smooth, just a hint of bitter, Lipton in a designated urn and have clear, squarish ice cubes. I like Petro's Hint of Orange, too, with those little pellets of ice. They infuse it from loose leaves that are spiced somehow, but not sweet, reminiscent of Constant Comment. Only, sometimes the orange slice gets pretty gacky after a half hour or so in a hot car.

But right now, I'm ordering a tea at a drive-through, and it won't sit any half hour. I've responsibly enquired before I touch the cup. Is this unsweetened? Ah, no. He goes back and pours an unsweet tea from a plastic pitcher they reserve for pains in the neck like me, shrugs, and hands it over.

OK, can I get some Splenda or the pink stuff please?

No, sorry, we're out of everything but blue. Blue is Equal. Equal is aspartame. Aspartame gives me headaches.

"Hmmm," I say, studying my steering wheel. "Better just give me a couple of packs of sugar then."