LEXINGTON, S.C. – First, a confession.
Despite my deep and profound love for sweet tea, I don’t drink it very often anymore. At least not the real thing. At home and at most restaurants, I will order an unsweet tea and create a small mountain of Splenda packets in a vain attempt to recreate the glory of orange pekoe and cut black tea mixed with molten sugar. This never works, because artificial sweetener can’t match the real thing no matter what all those lab rats say.
Why do I do this? Real sweet tea has so many empty calories. Truly good sweet tea requires a visit to the dentist. My eating habits aren’t the best as it is. My beverages shouldn’t pose an equal threat to my long-term well-being. Besides, so few restaurants get the tea-to-sugar mix correct. It isn’t worth the trouble for inferior sweet tea. That’s why, until this week, I hadn’t had a drop of real sweet tea in about six months.
But I had a feeling about Hudson’s Smokehouse. The place sits about 10 miles from the hospital where I was born and about five miles from my first elementary school. It sits next door to a pontoon boat dealership that makes its customers kings and queens on Lake Murray. If any place could mix that elixir I remember from childhood, it had to be this place.
Hudson’s, like many barbecue joints in the Palmetto State, uses a buffet as its primary pig-and-side-dish delivery system. Fortunately for me, I came in that purgatory between lunch and dinner when the buffet was being refreshed. I’m not sure I have the willpower to handle the responsibility of scooping prudent amounts of pulled pork and collard greens. So I ordered off the menu. And when the waitress asked for my chosen beverage, I ordered the sweet tea.
Or, as they call it in parts of South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, “regular” tea.
The meal, as a friend had advised me, was OK but not great. The pork was smoky and moist, and Hudson’s offers mustard-based and vinegar-pepper sauces for each faction in the South Carolina barbecue Civil War. The ribs were lightly sauced while still on the smoker, giving them an almost candied glaze that made dessert unnecessary. The Brunswick Stew was thick and delicious. But none of it matched the tea.
One sip, and I was back at my grandparents’ house in Lincolnton, Ga., making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to fill up after a morning spent failing miserably at catching black bass. Another, and I was back at that whole-hog barbecue watching the grown-ups grow despondent as the 1984 Navy football team ruined South Carolina’s dream season.
I thought of my mom, who brewed at least a gallon of sweet tea every day until I left for college even though she never drank a drop of the stuff. When I visited in my 20s, she always made sure there was a fresh pitcher. Even after the cancer took hold, she worried about whether she had tea in the fridge.
I’d give everything I own for another glass of my mom’s sweet tea, if only because it would buy 10 more minutes with her. So thanks, Hudson’s, for giving me the next best thing.