Southern Agrarianism and the culture of the Old South

Little Luxuries – Tea

Southern Agrarianism is closely tied to the Southern plantation culture, where the enjoyment of simple pleasures and little luxuries play an important part. This is part of an irregular series of posts that look at some of those little, affordable luxuries that virtually anyone can enjoy.

The Southern plantation culture was largely shaped by the Cavaliers, who brought their English customs with them when they fled the English civil war and settled in The South. Part of that culture is the custom of afternoon tea. Why did it not catch on here? Well, it began in 1840, and by 1880, afternoon tea had become firmly entrenched in English culture. The War for Southern Independence (1861 – 1865) interrupted such cultural transfers, and the impoverished state that it inflicted on The South made tea an unaffordable luxury for nearly everyone. That, however, is no reason that we cannot enjoy the custom today.

Lest anyone think that enjoying a relaxing cup of hot tea is something practiced only by the ladies and by effeminate males who sip from dainty tea cups while extending their pinky finger, consider the fact that, since 1945, the British Army has had “Boiling Vessels” built into every tank and armored vehicle so that soldiers could make their tea without being exposed to enemy fire. Many current U.S. armored vehicles now include a similar feature, designated “Heater, Water & Rations”. We should also note here that the concept of enjoying a relaxing cup of tea also applies just as well to coffee; we’re just focusing on tea due to its connection to traditional English culture.

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
Henry James

Up until just a few years ago, I truly believed that there was only one way to serve tea in The South – Sweet with lots of ice, and served in a tall glass. Though I still enjoy a tall glass of sweet iced tea as much as any Southerner, my wife and I have made a practice of enjoying a cup of hot tea together as we sit on the back porch swing. Sometimes, it’s just a simple cup of tea – sometimes we include traditional English scones (she has perfected a recipe based on one from an English tea room that we enjoyed going to).

As with many such little luxuries, the enjoyment is not just drinking the tea, but it begins with the ritual of preparing it. If you’re new to hot tea, here is how we prepare it, and it’s a nice starting point.

  • Start with loose leaf Earl Grey tea. We get ours from Twinings, who have been in the tea business since 1706. For convenience, or for decaffeinated tea, you can use tea bags. Since part of the enjoyment is from the ritual of preparing the loose leaf tea, and since there is at least a theoretical advantage in using loose leaf, that is how we make ours. If your local grocery store doesn’t carry it, you can order directly from Twinings (link).
  • Measure out one teaspoon of loose leaf tea into a tea infuser (Amazon link).
  • Fill one cup with water (the type of water used makes a big difference, so try tap water, well water, filtered spring water, and whatever else you have available to see which you prefer) and pour it into an electric pot.
  • Use cold tap water to rinse the tea in the infuser to wash out any tea dust and “relax” the tea leaves. Place the infuser and tea into your cup.
  • Heat the water to boiling, then pour it over the tea until the cup is full. Always use fresh water. Never re-boil water. Never boil longer than necessary.
  • Set a timer to three and a half minutes. At the end of that time, remove the infuser from the cup.
  • Sweeten to taste. I use the same amount of sugar as tea – one teaspoon. We also use Turbinado sugar (local grocery store or Amazon link), which is a tan-colored, raw unrefined sugar.
  • Let it cool enough so you don’t burn your mouth. Enjoy.

There are all sorts of things you can do along with this, and it’s something that both husband and wife can enjoy together. Experiment with different traditional ways of brewing tea. Brew several cups at a time in a tea pot. Try some of the many different types of tea available. Look into the health benefits of tea. For a bit of fun, check out the Star Trek connection on YouTube. Host a Ladies Tea (link is to one that my wife organized – it has become an annual event at our church). Collect different kinds of tea cups, tea pots, mugs, infusers, tea strainers, etc.

As a “Little Luxury”, it is meant to be enjoyed, so have some fun with it. Enjoy a relaxing cup of tea.


  1. Doris

    I was raised in Texas, yet my grandparents hail from Virginia and Louisiana. [a Tex/Mex Southern tradition of hot tamales on Christmas Eve will NOT disappoint] As a young girl every afternoon, upon arrival from elementary school I knew that a hot cup of tea and a soft boiled egg on hot butter toast awaited me. Hot tea is the perfect drink!! I brew several pots of tea each and every day. However, we prefer darker tea…we have always steeped our pot for 7 minutes.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      OK, now you’ve got me curious – 7 minutes? I’m going to have to try it and see what happens. As for the hot buttered toast, when the scones run out (my wife makes the dough, cuts them out, and freezes them so I can just defrost and pop them in the oven when I’m ready), a hot English Muffin dripping in butter is a pretty close “second place” to the scones.

  2. Chris Heuer

    Please share your English scone recipe. Being regular tea drinkers, we would interested in trying your favorite recipe.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      Here’s what I have in the scones file. I’ll have her review it to see if there is anything else she wants to add. After they are made, but before the baking, they are put on a cookie sheet in the freezer, then placed in a ziplock bag, then thawed and baked as needed. I have never been able to taste any difference from the non-frozen ones.

      Self Raising Flour – 1 3/4 cup
      Caster Sugar – 3 Tablespoons
      Butter (Cold) – 4 Tablespoons
      Salt – pinch
      Baking Powder – 1 teaspoon
      Heavy Cream – 1/2 cup (plus a bit more)
      Egg and milk to dust

      1. Rub in the mixture with your hands forming bread crumbs. Add the milk gradually. Stir to form a dough.

      2. Flour the chopping board and add the dough. Kneed Gently. Cover with cling film and place on a plate in the refrigerator for 1 minute.

      3. Re-dust the chopping board and rolling pin. Take the dough out of the refrigerator and roll out to 3/4” thick.

      4. Using a cooking cutter that is approximately 2” circle, cut out the dough. Do NOT twist the cutter, as this stops the edges of the scones from collapsing while cooking. Shake it gently and the dough will come out of the cutter.

      5. Place the scones on a butter tray and egg and milk wash the tops of the scones only. You can use a non-stick tray without butter.

      6. Place in the oven for 10 minutes at 410°.

      7. Take out and let cool.

      Flour – Great Value from Walmart. Do not use Publix – flour is very thick.
      Sugar – Super-fine from Publix
      Baking Powder – Clabber Girl from Walmart
      Butter – Daily Chef Unsalted Sweet Cream Butter from Sam’s Club
      Notes from my wife:
      1) Cold butter is the key
      2) Freeze the butter and then then grate it using a cheese grater.
      3) Use a food processor when doing large batches.
      4) She doesn’t refrigerate it as it says in Step 2
      5) Couldn’t find the Super-fine sugar, so she just uses regular sugar. Super fine sugar can be made by putting regular sugar into a food processor if you want to use it and can’t find it in the store.

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      A little side note – the original recipe from the English tea room was all in metric, so I converted it to what we use here. The tea room was in the process of closing, so they were happy to pass their recipe along to their regular customers. They were also selling their collection of signs, cups, 3-minute timers, and everything else, right down to the bare walls. That was kind of fun going through and bringing a bit of the experience back home with us.

  3. Stella Bell

    About tea, there are many sites that offer loose leaf, in bulk. Much cheaper and often fresher then twinnings. Star west botanicals is a good place to start, although as you get more involved you can find tea gets expensive.n
    Tea comes from the camellias and at one time Texas and North Carolina were the top tea producers in the US.
    You can buy small leaf camellia plants in different sizes, put them where they shade part of the day and they will do fine. The young tips make excellent green tea. They also offer bee food, a very important function.
    Another plant, Golden Rod, Soldago candiences, was known as Blue Mountain Tea to early colonies who has run out of black tea.
    Tip your cup!

    • Stephen Clay McGehee

      That’s what I like about what I think of as “Little Luxuries” – there are so many directions you can go with it, and still not spend much unless you want to. The next one in the Little Luxuries series is probably going to be on old school shaving; I’ve got the shaving mug that my dad used, and I’ve got a collection of razors that, according to their date stamp, were all made within 6 weeks of the day I was born. Some folks get into using different shaving soaps, some collect mugs or scuttles, some collect brushes – it’s just another facet of traditionalism that is a part of Southern Agrarianism. Perhaps the link to Southern Agrarianism is being stretched a bit on this, but that’s OK. I see Southern Agrarianism in pretty broad terms that encompass enjoying the simple pleasures of life, and this certainly fits.

      As for Twinings vs. less expensive brands – there is just something about tea from a company that’s been in the business since 1706 that adds something to the experience. For a while, I tried another brand that was a bit cheaper, but then I saw that they advertised on their tins that it was “halal”. That’s an automatic disqualification for me. I refuse to knowingly participate in that. Enough said on that topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

11 − 6 =