Monday, March 30, 2009

Eating Out: Tassa Roti Shop

One of the drawbacks to living in suburbia is that the selection of interesting independent restaurants is quite slim. This wave of dining establishments built around a shopping center nucleus has given way to a proliferation of crappertank restaurants like Applebee's, Chili's, Firehouse Subs, Moe's, Shane's BBQ, and Beef O'Brady's. Throw in your obligatory pizza joints, American-Chinese take-out haunts, and Americanized Mexican restaurants (you won't see nachos or fajitas in the authentic places), and you have a crowded restaurant scene with very few truly tasty options. Chick Fil-A and Waffle House are both Atlanta-based chains (and my two guilty pleasures), so they're not in the "bad" category. But still, the lack of a truly unique dining spot can be a little frustrating sometimes; so I was most thrilled when I first discovered the cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago served at Tassa Roti Shop. Big thanks go to my former executive chef Dean Dupuis for turning me on to this little pink house on Johnson's Ferry Road in Marietta, just down the way from Harry's Farmer's Market.

Owned by Trini couple Shaddick and Ria, Tassa Roti Shop specializes in filled rotis, but offers up a number of full plate meals, plus a lunch buffet (all day on weekends). A roti is basically a large, thin flatbread that is filled with your choice of meat (chicken, beef, duck, goat, and shrimp), a curried potato mixture, then you get to choose from a selection of hot sauces and chutneys before it is all rolled up like a burrito. If you get one of the hot sauces, I implore you to get the apple chutney as well. The sweetness really helps to mellow out the intense heat of the scotch bonnet peppers. Also, as a word of warning, I would recommend all first-timers starting with a shrimp roti. I've had the goat and duck as well, and they contain an alarming amount of bones. Everything is just hacked up with a cleaver and then stuffed inside your roti. Not that it isn't delicious--I just don't enjoy eating with an impending sense of dental peril.

The entree options are also incredibly delicious. Two nights ago, I had the oxtail plate, which featured meltingly tender braised or stewed oxtails served in their own sauce. The plate also offered up rice with peas, fried plantains, stir-fried cabbage, callaloo (which is essentially greens cooked down in chicken stock and coconut milk until smooth and creamy), and something called macaroni pie--which more resembled a sweet corn pudding with raisins than anything involving pasta. Washed down by a Jamaican ginger beer, the whole plate was the perfect balance of richness, sweetness, and spice. Really remarkable.

But the single best item on the menu at Tassa is something called "doubles." Often part of an island breakfast, this appetizer consists of a curried chickpea mixture stuffed between two (roughly 3") soft flatbreads, topped with your choice of hot sauces and chutneys, then wrapped in paper. I'm having great difficulty coming up with the words to describe how delicious this is, but a trip to Tassa isn't complete without one or two of these. And at only $1.50 apiece, they're a steal!

I have a certain fondness for ethnic restaurants where I am the only white person to be found--I just know the food will be better in these places. But one of my favorite aspects about Tassa is just how friendly everyone is. All of the diners seem thrilled to be there, and Shaddick and Ria couldn't be more hospitable hosts. And as with any place that specializes in an authentic cuisine, there's not a bit of kitsch to the whole place. It doesn't seem like you've walked into a storage unit for "Cool Runnings" memorabilia. Just really nice people serving the local food that they are so proud of. And I couldn't be more happy to indulge!

Friday, March 27, 2009

The McGangBang

When I first heard the title of this sandwich, I was aghast. Is McDonald's in the porno industry now? Are they referring to a graphic sex scene thought up by some PCP-addled marketing exec involving Grimace, Birdie, the Hamburglar, Ronald McDonald, and Mayor McCheese? What kinds of horror are taking place under the Golden Arches?

As it turns out, this is a customer-created sandwich that originated around 2006. Spreading purely via word of mouth, the McGangBang is taking on cult popularity around the country. This super-sandwich consists of an entire Spicy McChicken in between a double cheeseburger--bun and all. It looks hideous, but since both items come from the Dollar Menu, it will only set you back $2 plus tax--a true recession special! McDonald's employees are gradually becoming aware of this sandwich's underground popularity. The corporate office even issued a statement supporting their customers' creativity, though they neglected to mention the sandwich by name. Can't have the tweens asking for a McGangBang in their Mighty Kids Meals now, can we? There are even YouTube videos documenting people attempting to order the McGangBang via drive-thru, and the poor employees are completely befuddled. A few happen to know about the phenomenon, especially once they consult the shift manager.

In the name of providing you, my dear readers, with an fully accurate depiction, I ordered one of these bad boys the other day. Umm...not really anything earth-shattering. It is what it is. But just the uncomfortable look on an employee's face when a customer mentions "gang bang" with a straight face is worth the experience. Besides, you can always disassemble it when you get home, right?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Eating Out: Tasty China

Despite the generic-sounding name, this Marietta Chinese paradise is anything but generic. Lauded as one of the only (and quite possibly the only) authentic Szechuan (or Sichuan) restaurant in the Atlanta area, Tasty China offers up some of the most flavorful and spicy Chinese food I have ever eaten.

A few quick notes before I get into my actual meals here. Tasty China offers the usual American "Chinese" suspects, such as sesame chicken, beef w/ broccoli, General Tso's chicken, etc. You're in a palace of authentic Chinese cuisine--don't order things that you can get at your local City Wok (or "shitty wok" for you South Park fans out there). And in case you were wondering, General Tso is about as relevant to Chinese military lore as Colonel Sanders is to ours. Also, you might not hear me say this too often, but I would steer clear of the offal here. Ever since my first experience with chitlins--in Hattiesburg, MS no less--I can't bring myself to tackle intestines, which make a few appearances on the Tasty China menu. I am, however, a fan of kidneys. When I asked a couple of the staff members what they thought of the kidneys, they replied something along the lines of, "They're okay." *nervous laughter* "They taste kind of strong." This led me to believe that they didn't soak them--or at least not long enough. No piss-flavored meat for me, thank you! If I wanted to experience urine with my meal, I'd hang out with R. Kelly. BA-ZING!!!

I've been here 4 or 5 times, and I will handily go again. On the appetizer side, I recommend the Dan Dan noodles with beef. Here, ground beef is cooked in a spicy peanut sauce with chilies and Szechuan peppercorns and tossed with long, thin pasta. An interesting creation would have to be the Hot and Numbing Beef Rolls. In a bit of cultural cross-pollination, this flavorful cooked beef is tossed with chilies and Szechuan peppercorns (noticing a theme here?), then rolled with iceberg lettuce and rolled in a flour tortilla. Confused? I am. The chilies are pure burn, and the peppercorns are pure freeze; leaving your mouth burning and numb at the same time. Very aptly titled. The fish coriander rolls were also excellent, as fish (not sure which) and cilantro were very simply seasoned and rolled very thinly in a wonton, then fried until crispy. Oddly enough, they tasted just like...FISH AND CILANTRO! No sauce was necessary, as these were just plain delicious. Most recently, I opted for the Dry Fried Eggplant. Again, this dish is so well-seasoned that your Western palate won't miss the ubiquitous dipping sauce for a fried food item. The eggplant was amazingly crispy and I had a hard time saying "no" to another one. Unfortunately, I couldn't delve too deeply because the combination of homemade five-spice (very heavy on the fenugreek) and dried chilies created somewhat of an off-putting metallic flavor in an otherwise extraordinary dish.

If you're in the mood for a full entree, I recommend the braised fish with homemade soft tofu. The broth is spicy and flavorful, and when served over steamed rice, is a brilliant study in textures. I would pass on the twice-braised pork, unless they upgrade it to four times-braised pork. Under-braised pork belly is quite rubbery, and the whole dish was a little one-note, and I was not willing to start consuming whole dried chilies to alter that.

The Shan City Chicken is the hottest dish I have ever tried to eat. As exotic as it may sound, it's little more than 65% fried chicken chunks and 35% dried chilies. Too proud and stubborn to ask for milk or something to combat the heat that was severely kicking my ass, I was struggling to muscle this whole thing down. I have a very high tolerance for chile heat...but holy shit! This was insane!

The hot pot offers a great variety of meats, seafood, and vegetables with glass noodles in a simmering mini-cauldron of hot broth, chilies, Szechuan peppercorns, and a veneer of bubbling dende oil. They have a little device which keeps the dish hot (read: still simmering with a relative degree of volatility). I would advise wearing something that would not show the effects of an orange, oily stain; because regardless of what you eat, you're going to be wearing it. Absolutely delicious, though.

Perhaps my favorite dish was the one I was least expecting to blow me away. The green beans with minced pork and olives reminded me of the green beans I used to eat as a kid--cooked to death and seasoned with pork. These were different in that they were blanched fresh beans that were cooked with a neutral minced pork, but practically seasoned by the finely chopped olives. I will be getting this on each visit from now on. Tasty China is a wonderful reason to venture north of the perimeter, and a must if you live in the area. This place will change your entire views on Chinese cuisine for the better. Check it out!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Meat Madness

I was looking at one of my favorite food sites earlier today, and I found an NCAA March Madness-style bracket, except the tournament brackets involved various types of meats and seafood. The premise is very simple. Look at each match-up, then decide whichever you enjoy eating or cooking the most, and move that particular meat/seafood to the next round. Then decide on a winner! Feel free to share your results. My Final Four involved veal, duck, lobster, and sausage; and sausage beat out veal to claim the top prize. Gotta love meat that can also improve vegetables!

And since I can't upload the photo, here is a link to the brackets.

Go Meat!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Eating Out: Jackson, MS

That’s right, I’m taking this show on the road! Earlier this week, I spent 4 days visiting some dear friends back in my old stomping grounds of Jackson, MS. Sadly for me, Jackson is not exactly teeming with great restaurants. It is overrun with those crappy chain restaurants that we all know and occasionally tolerate, but that none of us exactly enjoy going to. Once we’ve narrowed it down to just the local establishments, then we have to weed through those lumbering warhorses that have somehow survived despite putting out bland, often prepackaged food. So much of downtown’s dining is out of the question, as is any place on County Line, Lakeland (save for Saigon Noodle House), or east of the city—Pearl, Brandon, etc. Then there are these new, misguided ventures to contend with--those with menus rooted in 90s cuisine at the latest; or those who attempt to be cutting edge, but fail in concept or execution. So I offer my apologies to Nick’s, Schimmel’s, Shapley’s, Pan-Asia, Julep, Char, and Amerigo’s; but restaurant evolution has passed you by. Fortunately, once you get past all of this, there are a few fantastic dining establishments worth raving about.

For those in the mood for BBQ, do yourselves a favor and check out the Pig Out Inn. Started in my former home of Natchez, MS, the POI now operates a second location on Old Canton Rd, just a few yards north of the County Line/Old Canton intersection. For those of you in college and eating on a budget—and for those of us braving the recession and eating on a budget—this place is quite easy on the wallet. Their house special of any sandwich, 2 sides, and a drink will only set you back about $8 and change. Unlike many of these chain bbq joints that litter the state of Georgia, you can actually taste the smoke in the food at the POI. The chopped brisket, chopped pork, and smoked hot sausage are all fantastic; and I believe that some of the random trimmings of these find their way into the mustard seed-studded baked beans. But somewhat surprisingly, the most exquisite item at POI has to be the smoked turkey. Turkey is one of my favorite sandwich meats, but once it takes on a heavy amount of smoke, it becomes a completely different animal. Any of their meats are well-complemented by their sweet and smoky bbq sauce that evokes the experience of good Kansas City bbq.

And no weekday trip to Jackson would be complete for me without paying a visit to one of the greatest lunch dives in the history of mankind: CS's. This was perhaps my favorite place to eat when in college, and a Friday afternoon jaunt was Jackson's magical answer to a hangover. Ideally located for me back then, CS's is on West Street, behind Millsaps College--and more importantly, directly behind the Kappa Alpha Mansion. The dining room is split into two sections, and over time, the seating appeared to me as something of a caste system. The more well-to-do businessmen and elder citizens would dine in the front section, while the college miscreants and the like would congregate in the rear of the restaurant. Two servers, including the venerable Miss Inez, plus Joe the food runner took care of the entire restaurant. The decor of the place is something to behold, as there are antique beer cans of every variety on the shelves; and pictures of various phrases using the word "ass" in lieu of donkey. Somehow, this doesn't come off as either fake or ironic, as it just seems to suit owner Pat McDaniel's personality. CS's offers plate lunches, but I've never ordered one. They offer classic cheeseburgers and sandwiches, but I've never ordered one. They apparently have good desserts, like cobbler and peanut butter pie, but I've never ordered one. In fact, I ate at CS's almost weekly for two years before I even knew that they had menus. No, dear readers, the primary reason to go to CS's is for the Inez Burger. A typical order would go like this--Miss Inez: "Whatchoo gon' have, baby?" Me: "Medium Inez, cheese fries, sweet tea." This delicious concoction comes in sizes small (4 oz), medium (8 oz), and large (too goddamn big for anyone under 250 lbs), but I've found that medium seems to be the perfect size that will fill you up, but not leave you wanting a nap for the next 3 hours. The Inez is a regular hamburger topped with chili, cheese, pickles, and jalapenos; and comes alongside a pile of steak fries covered in nacho cheese. Because tea provides the opportunity for free refills--unlike soft drinks--it is the preferred option. You pay your bill on the honor system by going up to Mr. Pat behind the register and telling him what you ate. It's such a friendly place, that I don't know of anyone who hasn't been completely honest with him. I am frequently asked about my favorite burgers, and CS's always finds its way into the top 3.

Since we're in Mississippi, we've got to have some southern food, right? Well again, we're limited to weekday lunch, as the best place to go is Two Sisters Kitchen on Congress Street. Inside this old two-story house is comfort food at its finest, as Two Sisters is just a buffet brimming with southern lovin'. There are no frills to the food--just OUTSTANDING fried chicken, baked chicken, some form of chopped steak, grits, rice and gravy, a whole mess o' vegetables, plus yeast rolls and cornbread. Not a damn thing to sneer at. And for some reason, I find the critical part of me blessedly absent every time I eat here. The food speaks to the soul, and there is always enough to fill up said soul. Just save room for the banana pudding or bread pudding.

And for a place that offers an upscale dining option, but feels comfortable enough for a casual lunch or a quick pizza, you've got to hit up BRAVO! Judging on overall quality of food and technique, I firmly believe that BRAVO! is the best restaurant in the city. And I am not just saying that because I spent the first year of my career working there; I thought it was the best before I applied there--in fact, that IS why I applied to work there. BRAVO! specializes in California-inspired Italian cuisine with a good bit of local flair thrown in there. Unlike many of the ubiquitous Italian-American restaurants, you can actually pinpoint regions here. A glazed duck breast with balsamic, pine nuts, and golden raisins recall a saor from Sicily. A grilled veal chop over pesto risotto embodies the homey rusticity of Tuscany. A capellini with shrimp, asparagus, and lots of fresh herbs is Rome's version of a scampi. The whole experience is just great, as the servers are incredibly knowledgeable and the wine list offers some gems at great value.

Finally, I can't leave without giving a brief mention of the nightlife. While the hotspots come and go, Fenian's Pub still remains a favorite for people of all ages and backgrounds. Outside of the Clermont Lounge in Atlanta, there is no bar I would rather be drunk in than Fenian's. No cover charge is necessary, and they offer live entertainment Monday-Saturday. Now let me clarify--Wednesday-Saturday offers hired entertainment. Monday is karaoke night, and Tuesday is open mic night. And with Harp on draft and Irish whiskey aplenty, what's not to love?

See y'all back in Atlanta

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Eating Out: Holeman & Finch

Every so often a place comes around that breaks the mold of the traditional restaurant. While most restaurants operate under a theme of a particular style of cuisine or do the whole “new American” thing under the guise of a sexy d├ęcor, Holeman & Finch eschews all of the norms and favors a more celebratory approach to food. A celebration of meat. Holeman and Finch is the brainchild of the supremely talented Linton Hopkins. Once a stalwart of famed New Orleans haunts like Mr. B’s Bistro and the Grill Room at Windsor Court, Hopkins has made a big name for himself in Atlanta with Restaurant Eugene: one of the city’s premiere fine dining locales.

In 2008, he opened a more casual spot in the same building. Named after his grandfather, Eugene Holeman, Holeman & Finch Public House offers a wide variety of tasty tapas-style dishes that are simple, but oh-so-good. Sharing the stage with the food are is a very decent array of bottled and draft beers, an approachable wine list, and a battery of specialty cocktails designed by award-winning mixologists Greg Best and Andy Minchow (both of Restaurant Eugene and the now-defunct Emeril’s Atlanta). Since the beer, wine, and cocktails are all designed to compliment the food, I guess we can call this place a true gastropub. I’m a little hesitant to brand such a great place with that label, as the term “gastropub” has been abused and misused with such culinary terms like “fusion” and “molecular gastronomy.” But with Hopkins’ vision being overseen by chef Adam Biderman, H&F seems to be striking the right chord with Atlantans.

By definition, a public house was one of the first types of restaurants in existence, dating back several centuries. The public house was a place where people could gather for a meal or a drink after working hours, and where the social class system did not apply. Everyone was treated as an equal. Holeman & Finch has taken a similar approach, as it does not offer reservations. Seating (both in the dining area and in the bar area) is completely on a first-come, first-served basis. The stools in the bar area are very uncomfortable and packed very closely together. One quibble I have with the place is that unless you snag a seat directly at the bar, you might be stuck on the two remaining walls where the plank provided as a table apparatus is only about a foot wide. For an unabashed glutton like myself who gleefully orders multiple dishes, this is not enough room. Even the dining room tables are small. When I took my friend Kate in the fall, we were putting plates on the windowsill to accommodate the lack of space.

Aside from that, the food is usually nothing less than stellar. As this is one of my favorite places to eat in Atlanta, I’ve experienced nearly every dish on the menu, and many are total home runs. A temple of cured meats, H&F not only offers a nice variety of cured hams, salumi, and sausages, but you can also witness the magic before your very eyes, as the meats are proudly hung in a clear cabinet adjacent to their bar and wine rack. In recent months, they have begun to expand on this effort, offering more old-world style charcuterie, such as terrines, galantines, and ballotines. My favorite of these has to be their souse. For the unfamiliar, souse is also known as head cheese. Unlike most head cheese that I’ve eaten, this is not some stiff, gelatinous mass; rather, it is very loose, with delicious bits of meat scattered among bread crumbs, capers, and amazing house-made yellow mustard.

The main section of small plates could essentially be called “The Southerner’s Perfect Bar Snacks.” They offer up classics like deviled eggs 3-ways, a crunchy gentleman (croque monsieur), fried oysters, and griddled hen-of-the-woods mushrooms on polenta. Their farm egg and pancetta carbonara with guitar-cut pasta is possibly the best carbonara I’ve ever had. While incredibly rich, each flavor (cured pork, shallots, black pepper) is very distinct, and I love that the star of the show is the pasta itself. Perfect texture! Another dish that I can’t seem to stop ordering is their chicken liver pate. The pate is rich and creamy, and the Jenny Jack honey/apple cider jelly and green tomato pickles really make it pop. Served with toasted country bread from their nearby bakery, the pate (for me, at least) invokes a memory of spreading butter and jelly on toast as a child. If you’re squeamish about chicken livers, this is a good introduction to them.

Speaking of squeamish, the main reason I adore Holeman & Finch is that they showcase around 5 dishes featuring “parts.” Some have been a nice gateway to parts, such as the pork belly with grits, chow chow, and charred onions; or "the whole duck," featuring duck breast, leg confit, and cracklin'. Others (my favorites) are in the more extreme category. My first dish I ever ordered at H&F was the crispy pig's ears and tails. I hope you all realize that both of these are essentially nothing but cartilage, and take some serious finesse to turn into something edible. They arrived sliced thinly and were very crispy. The sauce was sweet--something akin to a General Tso's sauce; and it was cheekily called "General Lee sauce." Next up came the roasted bone marrow. These were veal femur bones, split lengthwise with a bone saw; then seasoned and roasted. Sometimes the best dishes are steeped in simplicity, as this one arrived with nothing more than a parsley salad and some country bread. Now, I realize some of you are cringing at the thought of eating bone marrow, but come on: I know we've all gotten way too engrossed in eating our BBQ ribs, only to turn the bone lengthwise to suck out that extra flavor. Well, this dish just amplifies the amount and flavor of the delicious marrow, and simply resembles a meat-flavored butter. Sorry, I almost drooled on my computer just then.

My visit this week was prompted by a menu change featuring even more offal. First, I ordered the veal fries, which are the testicles for you non-chefs out there. They were prepared just like schnitzel--cut into 3-inch portions, breaded and pan-fried. No sauce was required, as a little gremolata of orange zest, lemon zest, and parsley provided plenty of contrast in flavor. Feeling a little more hardcore than usual, I decided to order the veal brains grenobloise. This was my first experience with brains as a main component (I've had lamb's brains in ravioli before), so I was curious what to expect. They arrived in a shallow skillet, nicely crisped on the outside. Served with crispy capers, croutons, and a lemon brown butter, the brains were incredibly hot when they arrived. Not only did they arrive hot, they remained hot (almost like tar) down to the last bite. The texture was meaty and tender, pretty typical of other cuts of veal. They had a slight aftertaste that I still can't put my finger on, but it was slightly metallic. I wouldn't have minded that, except that the dish was very heavy on the salt; so it only accentuated the aftertaste. Finally, I ordered my favorite food in the entire world--veal sweetbreads. Sweetbreads are typically the thymus gland, but can also be the pancreas. When cooked properly, they have a taste resembling a really good Chicken McNugget--remember the old ones when they used to have dark meat in them...yeah, I miss those. Anyways, they were served with soft grits, microgreens, hog jowl bacon, and brown butter. The first time I ever had this dish, it nearly knocked me on the floor; but it's been slightly disappointing since then. I think that in their first attempt, they paired it with cooked greens, which provided a subtle sweet and acidic quality. The food is so rich here, that it really needs an acid to help if from falling flat. Even a drop or two of good vinegar would elevate this already-good food to other-worldly.

But the bottom line here is that this is probably my favorite place to eat in Atlanta. Chefs all over the city come here to enjoy the food that we all love--food that just doesn't feel like "restaurant food." Bring a friend, bring an appetite, and order multiple items. And be adventurous--you won't regret it.

Don't worry, I'll talk about the burger another time.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Nectar of the Gods: The Perfect Sweet Tea

Well...not quite. You see, perfection in food is really only an ideal. And something as dear to every one of your hearts (at least for the southerners out there) as sweet tea can be a very subjective matter. In that case, I will give you at least a few tips to get you on the right track to sweet tea nirvana.

Before I get started, I need to share with you a quote that I just found:

"It's rough. It's been rough on that food. It's different eating here than it is at the house. Ain't got no sweet tea, and ain't got no fried chicken."

—Boo Weekley, PGA golfer from Milton, Fla., interviewed by the BBC on Day 2 of the British Open, 7/20/2007

I'm sure that good sweet tea is something that most of us take for granted, but once you are deprived of it for any extended period of time, its glories cannot be extolled enough. My unofficial rule for finding restaurants that serve sweet tea is very easy: If the state doesn't include a member of the South Eastern Conference, you will likely have a hard time finding sweet tea (the two exceptions being East Texas and parts of North Carolina). States with two teams in the SEC--Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee--make the best sweet tea. Shockingly, sweet tea is not found in New Orleans. I am happy to forgive this otherwise cardinal sin, because while in NOLA, pickling your liver in any alcoholic beverage is both accepted and encouraged. Iced tea drinkers only cost restaurants money and delay the inevitable party.

By "sweet tea," we mean "sweet." According to one food technologist, some of the sweetest glasses can hit 22 Brix of sugar. That means that 22 percent of the liquid consists of dissolved sugar solids, or, to put it in more meaningful terms: close to twice what you'd find in a can of Coke. Still, there's a balance to the flavor—the tea is brewed long and strong, so it gets an astringency that can only be countered by lots of the sweet stuff.

Southerners, of course, have a taste for sugar that is demonstrably stronger than what you find up North. We like our pecan pie and pralines sweet enough to make the dentist cringe. All of the major soda companies—the Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo, Dr Pepper—started in the South. Bourbon, that sweetest of whiskies, is from Kentucky. A mint julep, that classic Southern cocktail, is basically a whiskey'd up sweet tea, with mint, ice, simple syrup, and booze.

Excessive use of ice is also encouraged, if anything, to combat our sweltering temperatures here in the South. In an early essay about Southern cuisine published by the American Philosophical Society called Hog Meat and Cornpone: Food Habits in the Ante-Bellum South, Sam Hilliard wrote that a container of cool—not even cold—water, pulled from a nearby spring, was a delicacy at the table. Tea was mostly a drink for the upper class, and early on, it was the rich who had access to the ice that came down on ships or in wagons, at least until icehouses were built in cities. If ice was a luxury, then putting out a pitcher of ice-cold tea must have been quite a bit of hospitality.

For those of us who want to make it at home, we'll start with a few basic guidelines. Rule number 1: Tea should only come from good-quality tea bags that have been steeped in boiling water. Please avoid instant tea at all cost. It tastes like tea-flavored Kool-Aid, and has this incredibly funky aftertaste. Sun tea is equally deplorable. It's a scam, likely designed by the same person who marketed the Pet Rock in the 1970s or the official "Rachael Ray Garbage Bowl" of today. I prefer the Luzianne brand, purely for the fact that it's a more local product than Lipton. The directions on the box work alright, but I prefer to bring two cups of water to a boil, then steep 4-5 tea bags for about 5 minutes. Once this "starter" liquid has a nice mahogany color, remove the bags and pour into a pitcher. Fill with cold water and refrigerate until you're ready to drink.

Now, some of you might be a bit puzzled why I left out the sugar. I believe that the secret to the best sweet tea is to use a simple syrup. Simply take equal parts sugar and water (I'd recommend starting with a cup of each) and bring to a simmer on the stovetop. You don't have to leave it on the heat for a long time; just enough for the sugar to completely dissolve. If you want to get fancy, you can steep some thinly sliced lemons or mint leaves in the simple syrup. I'd avoid things like raspberries and mangoes--that's just blasphemous. Your syrup will keep in the fridge for a long time, and it makes a tremendous addition to any cocktails. Just pour yourself a glass of iced tea and stir in enough simple syrup for your liking. And that's it!