I’ve traveled enough in the South to know it’s a different culture where my favorite beverage, tea, is concerned.
When I went to Georgia to meet my husband’s relatives for the first time, his Uncle had a good laugh when I made a face at the sweetened iced tea the waitress brought. He explained that in the South if you asked for tea that’s how it came. “It’s all we drink,” he said.
Sure enough he was right. In the Southern food pyramid, sweet tea is right at the top, with barbecue, collards and banana pudding underneath, so on future trips I knew enough to accept the status quo, but specify “unsweetened” when ordering iced tea, even if doing so got a strange look.
What I did not expect when I vacationed in the South Carolina Low Country was that green tea, my breakfast and late afternoon beverage of choice, would not be available. I made do, even though I would have enjoyed my grits and eggs and sweet potato pancakes a lot more if they came with a hot cup of Jasmine Pearl or Japanese Sencha or even Tao Zen.
I’m not blaming the restaurants—the food and hospitality were first rate. The fault lay in me, a green tea snob, only satisfied with a properly brewed pot of a fine Chinese blend. I accepted my culpability, but still felt compelled to express my disappointment to my husband every time I had be content with Bigelow English Breakfast.
I visited Charleston on my last green-tea-less day away from my own well-stocked tea cabinet, and as I strolled through the Rainbow Row section down to the Battery, I looked for something to add to my collection in the trendy shops along Broad Street, but without success.
My husband and I had decided to take the 2:30 tour of Fort Sumter, mainly because it was one of the few Civil War sites in the east we hadn’t been to. We didn’t have high expectations, and it turned out to be a good thing because there isn’t much there.
Fort Sumter is located on a sandbar reinforced with granite in Charleston Harbor. From the air it resembles a little island in the shape of home plate. On the ground it feels like a dusty, desert atoll somewhere in the Pacific.
The fort had already been reduced to rubble long before it was returned to the Union (the day Lincoln was assassinated) after being held by the Confederates for four years. The few original ruins that remain are overshadowed by a two story black concrete battery built, but not used, in the Spanish American War that sits astride the middle of fort.
It’s not unusual to visit a Civil War battlefield and find there is very little left—at Cold Harbor, for example, there’s hardly anything at all—so it was not the sad condition of the building that left me unmoved. What was missing was any sense of what life had been like for those who were there under fire.
At Gettysburg, a walk up the path followed by Pickett’s charge had made the life and death struggle of the men who were there seem very real to me, but I couldn’t find anything at Sumter that helped me connect to the human stories of what went on there.
We had an hour to explore before the ferry returned to Charleston. My self-guided tour of the officers’ quarters and cannon mounts took about five minutes. The only other place to go was the museum inside the ugly black battery. After ten minutes there I climbed the parapet to look at the flags on the patch of grass between the battery and the seaward wall. The colors flying in the stiff breeze were, for me, the only sign of life, as they had been, no doubt, for those who had served in this God-forsaken place.
With nothing left to do I found a bench and waited for it to be time to leave. It was four o’clock and I wanted a cup of tea. Letting my mind wander, I remembered my first elegant high tea years ago at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa and imagined myself there, sipping from a china cup and spreading clotted cream on a warm scone. I was still in the midst of my fantasy when my husband joined me and asked if I’d been to the gift shop.
No I hadn’t, I told him. I couldn’t image any souvenir from this place that would have interested me.
“I only asked,” he said, “because they have green tea.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. Surely he was pulling my leg.
“No, it’s true.” He said that along with the books and the t-shirts and the baseball caps there was a display of Fort Sumter tea. “Guess what kind it is,” he said with a smirk.
“What kind?” I asked, still in disbelief.
I burst out in laughter, not merely at the absurdity of discovering what I’d been searching for in the last place in the world I’d expect to find it, but at the little scene that was playing out in my head.
I envisioned a bright-eyed young marketer pitching an idea to his boss for increasing revenue in the Fort Sumter gift shop. “Let’s add tea to the coffee mugs and travel cups with our logo,” he says. “Tea?” his boss asks skeptically. “Sure.” The marketer explains that there’s a Chinese tea from the Zhejiang Province they call “gunpowder” because the dried leaves are rolled up into little pellets that look like black powder. “It will go perfectly with our theme,” he adds.
“They’ve gone too far,” I told my husband.
“Who?” he said.
But then again, I thought, maybe not far enough.
Why not convert the ugly black battery into a tea room? Run a special four o’clock ferry and shoot off a cannon instead of ringing a bell to announce that afternoon tea is being served.