Gravel spits under the tires of my grandmother’s sedan as we turn into the home. I am in the backseat, watching out the window as the greenery rises up from behind split-rail fences as if to take over the sky. I know those trees, or at least I know of them—they have rooted themselves deep in my childhood memories of North Carolina. As a young girl, I spent several weeks there every summer, dodging cow patties and casting lines into the pond. Every Sunday after church the family would gather at my great-grandmother’s house. She would have arranged a table full of fried-everything (really, everything), fresh fruit pies, mashed potatoes, and several chilled pitchers of sweet tea. It was delightfully country.
It has been years since I’ve been to this lush state—seven years, in fact, and many things have changed. Today is Saturday, for example, and we are going to dine with my great-grandmother without a sermon lingering in our minds or hymns on our lips. Her residence has changed, too. It has grown legs and rooms, and we have to filter past dozens of other residents casually wheeling themselves to and from the reception in patient anticipation of their dinner trays. There is no array of Southern delicacies awaiting us in her corner room—this time, we are bringing her to the spread, portioned and plated in line at a local buffet. Many things have changed.
As we slip into line amongst clanging platters and brushing elbows, a familiar buttery scent greets my nostrils. The options that busy servers dish out are much the same as those that my great-grandmother had once made herself: Fried chicken. Squash. Mashed potatoes. Okra. And, much to my delight, the prepared glasses of sweet tea at the end of the line outnumber water by nearly two-to-one.
I take a glass of sweet tea to our ordained table and guzzle it with the delight of a six-year-old as I glance up at the faces of my grandparents, my mother, and my great grandmother. The most cherished element of those Sunday dinners emanates persistently within the walls of the dining hall: the warmth of my family.
The buffet, for me, was perspective. It was a glimpse of the land beyond the pastures and the pond. It was familiarity, it was home. I may no longer know the town, the streets, or the buildings, but I know the people. I know the culture. And somehow that realization came from the neat rows of sweet tea lined up at the end of the buffet to tempt the casual grazer: there are some things that time simply can’t touch.
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The first time I tried chai was in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and served by my younger sister. “You have to taste this—” she insisted, pushing a mug across the countertop to me. She refused to elaborate on its contents. The flavors, she said, would speak for themselves.
The quality of water affects the taste of your tea; this is beyond dispute. The relative quantities of mineral salts, oxygen and trace elements determine the relative "liveliness" or "flatness" of a particular cup. To that simple substance we add the basic flavor of the leaf itself or an herbal substitute.