Skip to comments.Mrs. Wilkes' sweet tea is so good the recipe just has to be shared
Posted on 08/13/2002 4:15:07 AM PDT by aomagrat
At Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room in Savannah, Ga., they assume you want sweet tea unless you ask otherwise. Now that, gentle subscriber, is the mark of fine dining.
They set a pitcher of tea on the table, which you share with whomever else happens to sit there.
The tally at our table was five Yankees and four Southerners, so the Dixie chick and the Dixie dudes had some teaching to do.
Denette Marshall, who was visiting from Englewood, Ohio, with her family, was an immediate convert.
She so enjoyed the tea that she asked me how to make it, so I wrote out my recipe on a business card.
Sema Wilkes, who has owned the dining room for half a century, was making sweet tea before I was born. But Mrs. Wilkes (It seems disrespectful to call her simply "Wilkes," as our style dictates; I'll negotiate with the editors.) has passed the mantle to Betty Gray, who now is Queen Tea at Mrs. Wilkes'.
I was drinking a glass of tea out back of Mrs. Wilkes', where they snap the beans and shell the peas, when her co-workers pointed Betty out as the tea maker, which she has been doing for three of her 10 years with Mrs. Wilkes.
"My boss man liked the way I made it," she says. "This tea job, that's my everyday job."
She makes tea in 5-gallon buckets, six or seven buckets at a time.
She boils the water in a big pot, then drops in a dozen gallon-size tea bags. Then she dumps in a five-pound bag of Dixie Crystals sugar for each five gallons of tea. Then she dilutes it to its proper sweet strength.
"Steep it till the tea turns dark," she says. "I don't time it. I know when it's ready. It ain't nothing to it. I'm a country girl."
The tea is so popular, and since Northerners - who put sugar on their grits - have no idea where to start, the Wilkes family included the recipe for it in "Mrs. Wilkes' Boardinghouse Cookbook," available at bookstores and Amazon.com.
Since we knew you would wonder, we reprint the family-size recipe here:
Put 3 quart-size or 6 individual tea bags in a crockery jar; they used Tetley for years but have used Lipton since Tetley closed its plant in Savannah. Pour 2 pints of boiling water over tea bags, cover and steep for 5 minutes. Pour into pitcher and add 2 pints of tap water. While tea is still warm, add 1 scant cup of sugar.
Not to create confusion or controversy, I prefer to sweeten the cold water first and then add the hot tea. But who am I to disagree with Mrs. Wilkes.
She is, after all, Mrs. Wilkes, and all I do is confuse people and create controversy.
Here is how I make sweet tea, and I ain't had any complaints:
1. Take a half-gallon pitcher and fill it approx. 1/4 way full with water. Add 1 cup of sugar and stir. This helps to melt the sugar while you are waiting for the water to boil.
2. Take 2 family size or 6 regular size tea bags (Luzianne is superior to Lipton) and put them in a regular size cereal bowl or teapot.
3. Fill the bowl with the tea bags in it with boiling water. The way I measure steeping time is like this: as soon as you pour the boiling water over the tea bags, go outside and smoke a cigarette. Don't linger, but don't rush either. By the time you're done, the tea is steeped enough.
4. Pour the bowlful of tea (without the teabags) into your already partially filled pitcher of sugar-water. You can squeeze the excess out of the tea bags using your spoon if you want, depending on how strong you want the tea. Stir while you fill the pitcher the rest of the way full with tap water. Doing it this way keeps you from having tea that's too warm and melts your ice too quickly.
5. Your pitcher of tea is best if it sits for a couple of hours, but when you get tired of waiting, pour yourself a big glass (already full of ice) of some of the best tea around.
The secret is 1 cup of sugar and 2 family size/6 regular size tea bags to the half-gallon. 1/2 cup sugar just won't cut it, but doing it my way, you won't end up with that too-sweet, syrupy tea, either, that you sometimes run into in BBQ restaurants.
That sir, is fighting words. My mother, my wife's mother, and both our grandmothers brought us up on Lipton. To drink anything else would be unheard of!! And BTW, are there other types of tea besides sweet?
You and aomagrat will probably shoot me, but the Lipton cold brew is not bad either! Every once in a while, I will bust out some cold brew... mostly when I'm lazy.
In Florida, it's really spotty - I can get sweet tea at most places. Quite a few of them have the carbonated stuff from a fountain that tastes like fruit punch. Some of waitresses think sweet tea means flavored tea, like rasberry!
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