Summer’s End Iced Tea

When I was growing up, I lived on a commune in Northwest Ontario (for those of you paying attention, this was both before and after the homestead/trapline but before being an Alaskan city girl). Anytime there was a gathering, there was iced tea. And, as I said, this was…a commune. There was always a gathering. By definition, we were, in fact, a gathering. I’m sure you can imagine we went through a lot of Lipton’s tea bags. We always made it the same way, starting with a great big metal pot half-filled with water on the back burner of the enormous stove. You had to carry the water to the pot from the faucet, both because it wouldn’t fit under the faucet and also because, once full, it was hard to carry. A big wad of tea bags floated on top after the water boiled, until someone judged it strong enough. Then, industrial-sized scoops of sugar stirred in with a wooden spoon. Haphazard squirts of lemon juice. Topped off with fresh cold water. Thoughtful tastes. More sugar. More lemon. Ooops…more water. Finally, perfection. That is, unless someone (who shall remain nameless – but it wasn’t me) accidentally scooped from the salt container instead of the sugar container, despite the black Magic marker label. Big oops.

I learned to make sun tea when I lived in Haines, Alaska (in, yes, another commune). I do recognize the irony of learning about sun tea in one of the greyest, dampest, chilliest (but also one of the most majestically beautiful) places in the world. When you live in Southeast Alaska, you take full advantage of every drop of sunlight you can get. And one thing that means is sun tea. Basically, you get a glass pitcher or jar – it needs to be clear – and put cool water and tea bags into it, and let it sit outside in the sun till it’s done. This has to be done in the summer, really, because you need the sun’s warmth to speed the process. You can make cold-brewed tea any time of the year, but if it’s cold out, you don’t bother with the sun or with putting it outside. You just set the pitcher in a semi-warm place and give it lots of time to steep.

Last week, we had weather in the 80s. I’ve never experienced this in October before. My Canadian/Alaskan soul thrilled with the warmth, and I realized that it was absolutely necessary to celebrate with iced tea. Now, I could have made basic iced tea with boiled water and Lipton tea bags, but where’s the fun in that? No, what I needed was something that tasted like a sunny day at the very end of summer. A little fruit. A little spice. This is my very favorite method of making iced tea:

Fill a clear glass pitcher with cool water. Clear, for the sun; glass, not plastic, to resist staining. Add 8 teabags for a half-gallon pitcher: one per cup. (If you’re making a whole gallon, you really only need 10-12 teabags, but for a regular pitcher I follow the one-per-cup rule.) Half your teabags can be plain black tea. Then, you need 2 bags of chai tea and 2 bags of peach or orange tea. Cover the pitcher to keep out bugs and dust. Put it in a sunny spot where rampaging puppies and preschoolers won’t knock it over. Let it sit until the water has turned a deep, rich red-gold color. On a really hot day, this can happen in under an hour.

I don’t sweeten my iced tea in the pitcher. I like to leave it plain, and let everyone choose their own level of sweetness. But if you’ve ever tried to stir granulated sugar into an ice-cold drink, you’ll know that this can be an exercise in refraining from flinging your glass to the floor as the grains swirl implacably round and round in the tea. So, while the tea steeps in the sun, I like to make a simple syrup. Really simple. Stir one cup of sugar into one cup of water. Heat it in the microwave until…well, until it’s hot. Let’s say 3 minutes. Give it a good stir and watch the last grains of sugar disappear. Pour the simple syrup into a bottle to keep in the fridge next to the tea. Depending on what I plan to drink it with, I like to add some citrus zest or fresh herbs to the bottle before pouring in the hot liquid. You get a lightly flavored sweetener that can be used in cocktails, too. (Ideas: fresh lavender, basil, mint, orange zest, a juniper twig…)

There you go. Perfect iced tea, sweetened however you like it, from a pretty bottle with a colorful coil of orange zest. Just what you need for an end-of-summer day. Below, some pictures of the procedure:

It’s amazing how something as simple as the whiff of a familiar smell from a yellow box with red lettering, or the glimmer of light through a dark amber liquid, can bring the memories rushing back. We always drank iced tea when we gathered… As I sat alone in my kitchen, looking at the sunshine through my glass, I remembered how far I’ve come and how much I’ve given up to be here. I don’t regret my choices. I have a good life. But when I lift a glass of iced tea, the memories rush back, and I so badly crave hugs from all the “aunts” and “uncles” and friends I left behind. I want to sit on the front porch of the big white house with whoever else happens by to snag a glass of tea before the crowds arrived, feeling the sun on my face as we gossip about who sat next to whom in church yesterday, who might possibly be expecting yet another baby, whether we might need to pick those peas again tomorrow…

Iced tea is the flavor of gathering, of family, of closeness. It tastes like voices raised in song, bodies swaying together like trees in a breeze as a family of over a hundred souls worship together. It tastes like the faintly scandalous square dances (“But the girls and boys will be touching!”), like bringing in the hay while dust hangs in the shafts of sunlight, like snapping beans in the kitchen while stories fill the air. It’s just a glass of tea. But for a minute – just a quick minute – I am so homesick I want to cry.

And I want to tell them all: I miss you. I love you. I promise I’ll come visit soon.

Save some iced tea for me, will you?