In the passage below, tea room historian "Miss Millie" (Millie Coleman), author of The South’s Legendary Frances Virginia Tea Room Cookbook, shares her thoughts on a less known area of tea history in American politics -- the role of Southern iced tea in the women's independence movement:
Most folks know that tea spurred our rebellious war for independence in the 1700s. Dressed as new world natives, a small party of disgruntled colonial men resisted British injustice by making moonlight tea in the Boston Harbor. However that’s only half of the story of our American heritage story. History books seldom tell the rest: In the 1900s unable to vote, tens of thousands of American women resisted men’s political authority and fought for female independence by opening tea rooms. They rebelled against religious and social conventions that required female dress codes and male escorts when eating in public facilities until the middle 1960s. ‘Tea room’ implied a place -- a restaurant, café, converted home parlor or cafeteria food service—where a female could eat what she chose. Tea room entrepreneurs like Atlanta’s Frances Virginia, offered hospitality, employment and freedom from gender, age and class discrimination. Tea rooms weren’t prim, fussy little places for dour matrons, but radical, bustling spaces, serving 1-2000 people per day. They offered broiled meats, vegetable salads and other nutritious, fast, foods, plus desserts and tea.
Like a married hostess welcoming guests into her own home, offering tea in their tea rooms was a feminist symbol of hospitality. However the tea service varied according to local cultural customs. Northern tea room owners provided iced tea only in the summer. Since Southerners drank iced tea year round, southern tea room diners expected ‘Ice Tea’ all year round. Unlike the smaller glasses for soft drinks or milk, southern tea room servers endlessly refilled customers’ tall, frosty, glasses.
Even today when a Southerner orders, “Tea, please,” it means tea served over ice, unless specifically stated, “I’ll have a cup of hot tea.” Furthermore ‘iced tea’ also meant ‘sweet-tea.’ Sugar soothed tea’s natural bitterness and heightened the caffeine jolt for workers returning to hot, un-air conditioned offices. Tea room owners knew that sugar dissolves best in tea still hot from brewing. Pre-sweetening in the kitchen meant they could use less sugar and economize.
I grew up immersed in Southern women’s history and tea traditions at my aunt’s Frances Virginia Tea Room in Atlanta. As a teenager ordering tea taught me independence as well differences in cultural diversity and hospitality. In the 1958 I traveled to Chicago without my parents as a Georgia delegate to the National 4-H Club Congress. At The Palmer House banquet I politely requested, ”Tea please.”
I was astonished when the waiter brought me hot water, a cup and tea bag. Clarifying my order, I sweetly drawled, “I meant that I wanted ‘Ice Tea’ sir, not hot tea.” I was stupefied when he refused my request, growling, “We don’t have Iced Tea.” But he was curious, “Why would you want cold tea in November?”
Today whatever one’s region, gender, race, class or religion, we can meet at a common American table where drinking ‘ice tea’ is popular all year long and a global table where some form of tea is enjoyed every day. Raise your glass in remembrance to independent women and their progressive tea rooms, where tea symbolized friendship and hospitality.
Miss Millie also shared an iced tea recipe, Miss Millie's Southern-Sweet Mint Iced Tea, here on About Coffee / Tea.