We’d been living in our new home just a week, but I was already itching to have company. Growing up in a family that had exercised hospitality frequently and lavishly from fancy dinner parties to pancake breakfast for two dozen, I always felt that a house wasn’t home until I’d had someone over.
Problem: we’d only just barely got the two sides of our double wide glued together, and still didn’t have some important systems (like flush toilets) working well yet. Hospitality would have to wait.
Then I heard a knock on the bottom of my door. (We didn’t have porch steps yet, either.)
I opened the laundry room door and looked down to see Joe, the trailer park handyman.
“Ya’ got any ice for ma’ tea cup?”
He held up a tall, blue plastic cup, the type you get the super sized sodas in. It was faded pale in spots and had dark brown grime in every crevice.
“Do you want me to wash it first?”
“Woman! Don’t you dare warsh ma’ tea cup–I’ll whip yo’ rear end! That’s wheya the flava’ is!”
This was the beginning of my understanding of Joe’s religious passion for sweet tea.
I first met Joe (not his real name) when we were visiting my in-law’s trailer park last summer. He is a rather worn out, scruffy character with a lot of curly, salt and pepper hair covering his head, his face and his tattoos. He had more gaps than teeth and such a strong, southern twang it required weeks of practice before I could get even the gist of what he said. He lived part time in lot twelve with his sister and her boyfriend and part time with his ex-wife and her husband.
Joe isn’t picky about his accommodations, as long as there is sweet tea.
Joe doesn’t have a regular job because he hates working for stupid people (his words) and also because the US government has deemed him unworthy of a driver’s license. But these facts don’t do Joe justice. He’s a hard worker, diligent and very intelligent. He just doesn’t put any stock in trying to impress people. Joe is Joe, take him or leave him.
Some days, with the aroma of hand-rolled cigarettes always about him, and his spicy vocabulary, it would be easier to leave him. But somewhere along the way, he must have decided he liked us just a little bit, because he began working for the park in an unofficial capacity, helping with plumbing and electric and getting the old backhoe to stop spewing hydraulic liquid. And like it or not, this gave me many opportunities to offer Joe hospitality.
Turns out he is one of the easiest guests I’ve ever had. I don’t have to issue an invitation–he just shows up at dinner time. I don’t have to tidy up or cook anything fancy–he’d literally chew me out if I went to extra trouble for him. All I have to do is share what we have…and learn how to make sweet tea.
Sweet tea is Joe’s fuel. He gave up alcohol years ago, and literally doesn’t drink water. He consumes three to four quarts of sweet tea a day, poured over ice in his sacred tea cup. The amount of sugar and caffeine in a batch of tea made to his specifications is an affront to all I have learned about nutrition. But I’m realizing that blessing a guest in my home is not about forcing on them what I think is best, but on learning to serve them where they are at.
Making tea for Joe is hospitality stripped of all its pretenses and ulterior motives. There’s no satisfaction to my personal passion for nourishing the bodies that come to my table. There’s no acclaim to be gained from impressing Joe–we are his only friends. And I don’t even have the pleasure of joining him in a cool sip because caffeine keeps me awake.
Hospitality in its simplest form convicts and inspires me. I am moved to examine my motives for grand gestures and memorable presentations, even as I look for more small, simple ways to offer a cold drink to a stranger. It doesn’t have to be fancy to be a blessing.
- 8 bags black tea
- 1 gallon water
- 1 cup plus one teaspoon sugar
- Place 8 tea bags into a 3-4 quart saucepan with 2 quarts of cold water.
- Heat pan on high to bring to a boil.
- Once the water has reached a boil, shut off heat and add sugar, stirring till dissolved.
- Pour tea concentrate into a gallon container, then add two more quarts of cold water to the tea bags in the saucepan.
- Swish the water through the tea bags, and squeeze them with the back of a spoon to get all the flavor out.
- Throw away the tea bags and pour the tea water into the tea concentrate. Stir to combine.
- Cool on counter until room temperature, then transfer to fridge to finish cooling.
- To enjoy right away, pour tea over a tall glass of ice.
- Tea keeps for 4-5 days in the fridge. Joe says that extra teaspoon of sugar makes all the difference and don't you dare leave it out.