Iced tea memories bring back flavor of summer

July 07, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

MY GRANDMOTHER had her own way of announcing that it was lunchtime. She would walk from the kitchen through the dining room to the stair hall. Then she called up to her sister with two words, "Tea's made."

That was it. The sentence meant that it was time to come to the table for lunch because the water she had put on had come to a boil a few minutes earlier. It was now filling the big brown ceramic pot, which also held a metal tea ball stuffed with loose tea.

When the leaves had time to steep, the sisters had a couple of cups and whatever they wanted for their noontime meal. I seem to recall plenty of Saltines and cottage cheese, maybe with some stewed fruit.

Lily Rose and Cora, grandmother and great aunt, loved their tea and knew a thing or two about how to make it. They believed that a good cup of hot tea was a restorative and hit the spot when you didn't want or need coffee.

They also had a way of making iced tea that should have been patented. There simply is no better version than theirs. Of all the recipes they followed (rarely written down), their iced tea formula is fairly easy. Be warned, however. You have to like your iced tea with lemon and sugar.

From Memorial Day through the hot days that hang around into September, they had a ritual. After their noontime hot tea was finished and the lunch dishes put away, one of them put on a big pot of water to boil. I never once knew them to use a tea kettle. They heated their water in open pots.

While the water was taking its time to come to a bubble, Lily or Cora took a blue ceramic bowl from its spot in the pantry. The bowl was extra deep and looked as if it dated from the 1920s. It was German (marked Villeroy & Boch, Dresden, Saxony) and its exterior was glazed in a deep shade of azure blue. Around the lip was a pretty silhouette border of grapes on a vine.

Years later, I learned this was a collectible pattern. An antiques dealer in Lewes, Del., had about 20 different pieces of this kitchenware and asked $1,400 for it. He didn't have the iced tea bowl, however.

Just four ingredients went into this azure vat -- tea, hot water, sugar and squeezed lemons, skins and all.

There were 12 of us around the table in those days and we went though a lot of sugar. The sugar bowl was more like a stoneware crock (we had smaller versions for the table) and held at least five pounds. They used a beat-up metal scoop to dredge out two or three heaping shovelfuls. That was the first ingredient to be dropped into the blue bowl.

I think they used two lemons for each batch of iced tea; it could have been three, but that seems like a lot of lemons to buy each week. One citrus technique never varied. To extract the maximum gush of juice from each lemon, with the palms of their hands (pressure applied) they rolled the lemon on a hard marble surface. This trick seemed to coax more juice out of the lemon once cut in half and hand-squeezed. Juice, pulp, seeds and skin got dropped into the bowl and came to a rest atop the sugar.

The tea step followed. They used loose tea (always the A&P brand and no other) and stuffed it into the metal tea ball. If the tea ball wasn't available, they used a mesh sieve or colander to immerse the tea in the water. Invariably, a few tea leaves came free. The stray leaves just made the drink all the more authentic.

Then came the hot-water bath. The water had just come to a boil on the stove when Lily or Cora carried the pot across the kitchen to the iced tea table, a metal side table where they also made crab cakes and, in season, padded oysters.

The few seconds it took for the water to leave the stove reduced its temperature enough so that it was no longer actually boiling. It was still scalding hot, but not bubbling. They poured the water into the blue bowl; the resulting liquid soon became awash with four lemon halves and a tea ball. Once the leaves absorbed the water, the tea ball sank like a fishing weight.

All this sugar, tea and lemon made for a kicky, potent brew. Sometimes it was too strong and Lily or Cora cut the mix with another half pot of cool water. They cooked to taste and knew just when the balance was to their liking.

This final check was the last step in the sisters' early-afternoon routine. They drew the blue kitchen shades down to screen out the worst of the heat and then exited. Each one drew a bath and took an afternoon nap. Nothing interrupted this ritual.

By dinner time, the tea was ready for consumption, after having sat for at least three or four hours. This method of preparation requires that the sugar, lemon, water and tea mingle for that long to reach the kind of thirst-quenching perfection demanded on a humid July afternoon. It also took about that much time for the mixture to cool down and reach room temperature. The sugar, lemons and tea also scented the house with an unmistakable, pleasant aroma.

We had a venerable GE refrigerator. Ice for 12 was sometimes a difficult matter. The trays were metal and seemed to produce a denser cube than what you get today. Maybe the metal ice trays didn't do anything different. It could just be the rosy way things look viewed through the haze of the past 35 years.

Lily and Cora's iced tea made every summer dish taste better. It was great stuff with the vegetables, fruits and lighter meals they served throughout the hot months. The tea, thanks to the lemon and sugar, was a light amber color, a shade that makes me think of dinner time in July.

On a hot Sunday last month, my niece complained she was thirsty. I handed her a glass of tea made according to her great-grandmother's formula. Elizabeth downed it, smiled and ran to her mother: "This is the best iced tea I've ever had."

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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