Monday, January 20, 2014

Summer light, summer heat, summer drink

There is nothing quite like the summer afternoon. The later afternoon, mind you -- the hours from about 4:30 to about 6:30 in June and July, when the angle of the sun subtly shifts, and green growing things and clouds and wind and people, too, all seem to pause and take breath, all look about a little more freely again after a long paralysis, a baking, of heat and light. You know how it was when you were younger and spent a summer day at the park or the pool or the beach. The early part of the afternoon was timeless, and glaring bright. You were very busy with sand or toys or water. But then there came a brief interregnum, perhaps only ten minutes -- it's hard to notice just when it is -- which changed everything. The sun shifted. Shadows grew. You might have felt just as hot and you might still have gotten a sunburn just as bad as an hour ago, but you became aware of how long you had been there. A sense of time returned. The youth of the day no longer stretched before you. The very place of the sun in the sky, radiating across that longer distance, seems to say "home" and "dinner."

The real evening hours, from about 6:30 until dark, are even better. There's a sense of mercy about this time. The abating heat, and all that summertime life slowing and stopping to rest, seems almost more miraculous, because more necessary and more designed, than its rising to activity in the morning. Declining light, still warm, fingers gracefully into yellow lilies and purple coneflowers and all their coolly swaying green foliage. It strikes up pale green and pale opal, a memory of noon, into distant treetops even as porch and garden fade into murkiness. It strikes up, pink or gray, into the last summer clouds drifting east miles beyond that. Cicadas rattle and buzz, and the last birds sing, and very late afternoon has become evening has become night. The fireflies come out. Then, sad to say, arrive mosquitoes and big stupid June bugs that fly right into your head. Nine o'clock. Time to go in.

The late afternoons and evenings of summer seem to me perfect. I'm sure it's a matter of taste. Some people prefer the gorgeous mornings instead, or other gorgeous times of the year, and all for good reasons. I know someone who likes rainy fall afternoons best, because she doesn't feel obliged then to go outside and Get Some Fresh Air.

There is one teeny, tiny problem with these gorgeous summer afternoons and evenings, and that is that those of us searching for liquid refreshment during them may find that wine, delicious as it is, is not nearly as thirst quenching as we'd like. What we must turn to on these hottest summer days is that blessed invention, dreamed up (legend says) at the St. Louis World's Fair in the hot summer of 1904 -- iced tea.

A Wikipedia article on iced tea will tell you that indeed the story of iced tea being popularized "or even invented" at the 1904 fair is an urban legend, iced tea appearing in cookbooks and on dinner tables, at least in the United States, as early as the 1860s. This same article will tell you all about the variations on the blessed and thirst-quenching theme. Among them there is plain black tea, poured over ice, garnished with a lemon slice, and sweetened with sugar or not. This is most restaurants' version of the tipple. There is Southern "sweet tea," black tea steeped and sugar added to it while hot, and then this concoction poured over ice. There is half and half or Arnold Palmer tea, a mix of iced tea and lemonade, which strikes me as a ruination of both beverages. There is "sun" or "refrigerator" tea, made by plopping tea bags into a jar of water and setting the jar in the sun or in the fridge until the water takes on a brown color. Which strikes me as a ridiculous notion. The whole point of iced tea surely is that it starts with brewed tea, which is to be had by bringing good cold water to a boil and then steeping tea leaves in it to make, um, tea. If that is too much effort, why not place the jar on the kitchen table over night in the dark, and call it "night tea"? Perhaps the suggestion there would be too off-putting.

Iced tea being so necessary to the coping-with of a midwestern summer, I offer my recipe. This is an heirloom from my family -- as is the glass pictured above, the last of a set that I grew up with, snapped here because one of these fine days I feel sure it is going to break and be lost forever -- and is the only version of the drink you will ever really need. (I honestly don't know too many people who know how to make it this way, except my cousins.) We are not Southerners, but our iced tea is properly sweetened; it's not half and half, but it does involve your squeezing a lemon into the tea, and not simply jamming a lonely slice onto the rim of your glass where it does no earthly good at all. I should have explained already that of course this is an iced tea you must make by the pitcher, juicing the fresh lemon, measuring the sugar, adding the water, and stirring fully. Before that, it is understood of course that you have already brewed your tea in the style outlined above, bringing a pan of freshly drawn cold water to a boil, adding the tea bags (and plenty of them), and letting it all cool and steep through the hot afternoon to downright manly strength. This is the gift and masterpiece of a careful hostess; it is not by any means that restaurant monstrosity touched on above, black tea sloshed over ice -- dull and dreadful, a mouthful of watery tannin -- and the idea of attempting to sweeten it by stirring a stingy packet of sugar into the jammed ice! Nor is it some sort of thing made by diluting with cold water a powder that smells intensely like a new box of crayons.

No. One must have standards. This is True Iced Tea. Imagine the voice of Family Guy's malicious baby Stewie instructing you, as he glares sideways through half closed eyes. "This is true Iced Tea. Do not make it improperly. Every time you make it improperly, I shall kill you."

Proper Iced Tea

Bring 1 quart of cold water to a boil. As soon as it comes to a full rolling boil, turn off the heat and drop in at least 6 to 7 teabags, depending on your taste and on the strength of your tea. (I'm sorry but the ubiquitous Lipton is the weakest and most pallid of all choices, a circumstance made all the more unfortunate by the fact that it is so often the only choice on grocery store shelves. And I suppose a purist could measure in the loose tea of his choice, about 6 or 7 Tablespoons.) 

Let the tea steep and cool. Remove the teabags, squeezing out their excess first. Pour the tea into a pitcher that holds about 3 quarts of liquid. You may make your iced tea after five or ten minutes if you are absolutely in a hurry, but do use a metal pitcher in that case, since scalding hot tea might crack your waiting glass or plastic vessel.

Cut a lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the tea, discarding the hulls. Add 1/2 cup sugar. Fill the pitcher with cold water until it is almost full. Stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Stir, stir, and stir. (Very important. Think Stewie: every time you fail to stir and dissolve the sugar completely ....) A few peels of lemon zest, taken from the lemon halves with a vegetable peeler before you discard them, may be tossed in now to give the iced tea an extra zip of lemon flavor.

Pour over ice cubes in individual glasses. Done. Perfection. You may double the recipe to make two pitchers, and you may add an herbal or fruit-flavored tea bag or two.

And you may drink it with anything you like. Notice how well its sugar, acidity, tannin, and thirst-quenching-ness all go with the grilled foods, or spicy, easy-to-make summertime Mexican dishes that are hard to pair with any wine.

Do have another big glass after dinner on the porch, as the tilted light of a summer afternoon-turned-evening strikes up into trees and clouds. and everything softens to coolness and rest. Only June and July and maybe a little of May give us these gifts. August tries, but in August we lose a full hour of daylight from the month's beginning to its end. Soon enough fall will come, and with it the appropriate hearty foods, and lots more wine, again.

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