Southern Afternoon Tea: An American Tradition

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Sweet Tea // Ice Tea

Popular throughout the American south, Sweet Tea can be a great way to beat the summer heat. Photo by liz west (Flickr) – CC BY 2.0 – https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/641462022/

With iced tea season on hand, it is time to look at another American twist to tea, the southern afternoon tea. If you haven’t guessed already, the main beverage of the southern afternoon tea is iced tea. So let’s take a look at its origins and then what to serve to make your southern afternoon tea truly American.

Southern Afternoon Tea – History

Afternoon teas in the US mimic British teas during the 1700’s. However, as the ice box and refrigeration developed in the US, so did iced tea. Keep in mind, a high temperature in London is the upper 60’s for the summer. In most of the southern US it is a good 20 degrees warmer, so ice became very popular very quickly in our country. Sweet iced tea, with black tea as the base, first appeared in the 1870’s. Before that, it was green tea that served as the base to iced tea. In the wealthy plantations the tea was served over ice with sugar and a slice of lemon. Periodically herbs like mint or basil were added as garnish.

Southern Afternoon Tea – What to Serve

A southern tea needs American food, luckily there is no shortage of historic recipes to draw from when crafting your menu. Much like the British, the southern tea includes both sweet and savory items. The big difference is the use of ingredients and foods that reflect what was available in the early to mid-1800’s in the United States. Of course you can update this with your favorite family recipes.

  • Southern Tea Cake – This soft cake like cookie is the simple combination of sugar, flour, eggs, milk, butter,and pearlash (an early form of leavening agent, like yeast). Today’s version includes vanilla, baking powder and salt. These versatile cakes can be eaten plain or used much like the British scone.
  • Apple Tansey – This calls for a true cast iron skillet to get right. First published in 1742 in Williamsburg, VA, this treat is highlighted in the Complete Housewife, which was originally published in England but was reworked by William Parks for American tastes. This recipe calls for Pipin Apples (Granny Smith seem to be a favored alternative), butter, eggs, cream, sugar and nutmeg. The goal is to fry the apples in butter and then add the eggs and cream and have it brown on one side and then flip (or cook under a broiler) to brown the other. Think of it like a sweet apple frittata.
  • Ambrosia Salad

    Ambrosia Salad – Photo by Flickr User Steven Depolo (CC BY 2.0)

    Ambrosia Salad – This fruit salad appeared in the 1860’s as the railroad connected the southern citrus fields with the northern Eastern cities. As California opened up, coconut was commonly delivered into San Francisco and made its way east for those who could afford it. Ambrosia salad was originally a layered salad of shredded coconut, sugar and citrus. It has since had pecans and marshmallows added to it.

  • Biscuits with Ham – Pigs were a big staple in all early American homes. They provided both protein and fat for cooking other foods that could be cured with salt for long term storage.

So the next time you are thinking about afternoon tea, try the American version!

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