WHEN YOUR DAY is devoted to drinking iced tea, sitting on a porch reading novels and thinking about what's for supper, you know you are on vacation.
That is what I did recently. It was an immobile type of family vacation, one where the brood hunkers down and follows the daily regimen of eating, drinking, taking a dip (in the Atlantic) with pauses for reading and napping.
There is also the mobile type of family vacation. In that one, the clan goes airborne, visits far-flung sights and generally gets its horizons broadened. Usually the cultured members of our family talk me into taking one of those mind-stretchers about every five years. Mostly I prefer immobility, and while that style of vacation does not always stimulate the cerebrum, it can thicken the waistline.
Especially if you drink real iced tea, with sugar, every afternoon, which is what I did on this summer vacation. The first pitcher was made around lunchtime to accompany the rounds of bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches that have become a required midday vacation meal.
At peak occupancy, there were eight adults sharing the small beach house in Chincoteague, Va. One pitcher of tea rarely lasted through lunch. That meant I would brew a second, follow-up pitcher. In keeping with custom, iced-tea-making was my contribution to the well-being of the vacation household.
Over the course of two weeks, others contributed to household morale by steaming lobsters and shrimp, baking peach cobbler, dishing out homemade pizza, preparing chocolate chip cookies and making doughnuts. This, I point out to the mindstretchers doesn't happen when you are museum-hopping in Europe.
Some might describe the way I make iced tea as a tradition-laden rite. I describe it as the only way to make the real stuff. I fill a kettle with about 2 quarts of cold water and take it to a roiling boil. I pour the boiling water onto 2 oversize bags of orange pekoe tea in a pot and quickly set a timer for 3 1/2 minutes. When the timer buzzes, I quickly remove the tea bags.
While waiting for the water to boil, I squeeze a lemon, using one of those devices that strains out the seeds. I deposit the lemon juice and the spent rinds, picked free of seeds, in the bottom of a pitcher.
How much sugar you put in your tea depends on a variety of factors. One is temperature; the hotter the day, the sweeter the tea. Another is the tartness of the lemon. And still another is your past life. If you grew up sipping sweet tea, as I did, iced tea doesn't taste right unless it has a sugar and lemon rush to it.
The pitcher I used held about 2 quarts of tea, so that meant I added about 1 cup to 1 1/4 cups of sugar for each batch. The order of the ingredients also matters. The lemon juice and lemon rinds go into the bottom of the pitcher and are allowed some time mingling. Sugar granules cling to the lemon rinds. Sugar-coating the lemon rinds probably does not affect the flavor, but it looks authentic.
Next I pour the brewed tea, still warm, onto the lemon and sugar. Steam rises out of the pitcher as I stir the mixture with a long wooden spoon. I suppose you could use cold brewed tea, instead of its hotter cousin, but without the steam, this part of the ceremony would definitely lose drama.
Next comes the tasting, a rite that requires a skilled palate and that long wooden spoon. The spoon scoops up a sample of the brew and the palate determines, after a long, careful sip, whether more sugar is needed.
Usually my answer is yes, especially when I am on vacation. I sprinkle more sugar into the swirling brew and take even more sample sips. As the tea cools, dissolving the sugar becomes more difficult so an immediate decision - to sugar or not to sugar - is required. It is the high-stress moment for an iced-tea maker.
Winemakers hold their cabernets in casks. Bourbon makers age their whiskey in wood. I hold my warm, sweet tea in the pitcher, releasing it into ice-filled glasses only when I feel the mixture is at its peak.
When that moment comes, it is announced by cracking sounds as the hot tea hits the cold ice. That is how it should be. Just as there is conflict in a good novel, so too with iced tea. The hot and the cold collide. The ice melts. The tea is diluted. The result is sweet harmony.
As I sat on the porch reading books filled with big ideas (John Irving's Until I Find You), books filled with complex notions (Lisa Glatt's A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That) and books filled with larger-than-life characters (Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip), I couldn't help but feel that as sweet as this moment was, the next batch of iced tea would make it even better.