It’s funny how some foods and drinks pick up place names along the way. French toast isn’t a French invention (it’s quite possibly from ancient Rome), Brussels sprouts hail from Belgium, and danishes originated in Austria. But hot “Russian tea”—a beverage that’s often made with a base of Tang or orange juice concentrate along with black or instant tea—may be one of the more amusing faux-appellations. Russian tea is not a drink you’d find on restaurant menus, or artisanally steeped by the pot in a coffee shop. This is the stuff of spiral-bound community cookbooks, canasta games and after-church gatherings through certain parts of the South (I’ve seen the greatest concentration of recipes from Georgia and North Carolina), and it’s designed to slake the thirst of a crowd.

But what the heck is “Russian” about it? Per Garden and Gun’s Jed Portman, swank Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century took their black tea with sugar and lemon in imitation of upper-crust Russians, but that doesn’t quite explain why so many people’s grandmothers and great aunts shared recipes for orange juice-based, clove-infused “Russian tea” recipes in community cookbooks in the post World War II era. The formula was further abstracted along the way with the invention of Tang instant beverage mix in the late 1950s, and blasted off to new popularity after John Glenn swigged the stuff on a 1962 Mercury space flight. The use of the Space Age dry mixture—along with Lipton’s breakthrough instant iced tea formula two years later—meant that the drink could be made ahead of time in bulk for parties and large community gatherings, or passed along as a handmade mix in a mason jar at the holidays. (The recipe will occasionally be published as “friendship tea.”)

To its devotees, there is nothing kitschy or tongue-in-cheek about a Tang-based drink. Community cookbooks are steeped in the spirit of sharing—and a bit of humblebragging—sharing a person or family’s very best recipe with present company and posterity. The first time I sipped Russian tea was at a Christmas Eve Moravian “Lovefeast” at the Methodist church in which my husband had grown up. Cups of the warm, spiced beverage were passed down the aisle along with traditional, citrus-kissed, potato-based buns, made once a year for that particular celebration. It tasted generous, sweet, and not quite like anything I’d had before. 

My late mother-in-law, then in her mid-eighties, was highly amused by my naivete. She pointed me to her cabinet of cookbooks. Just grab the first one and you’ll probably find it. She was right—about that one, and the next one, and the next. Granted, the deck was stacked because Charlotte never met a comb-bound cookbook she didn’t buy, bookmark, and faithfully annotate. I share that with her and am lucky enough to have her collection in my home now. Someday soon as the days grow colder and the world darkens in various ways, I’ll gather some loved ones around me and make a batch. Right about now, I could use something orange and Russian-ish that doesn’t scare the willies outta me.

Instant Russian Tea

From Recipes from Our Heart, Advent Moravian Church—Winston-Salem, N.C.

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Mix. Store in jar. To serve use 2 heaping tablespoons tea mixture in 1 cup hot water.

Russian Tea

From Recipes from Our Heart, Advent Moravian Church—Winston-Salem, N.C.

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Steep tea and strain into large container. Put cloves in tea ball or tie in a piece of cloth and put in large container with the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil. This may be stored in the refrigerator when cool, then heated as needed.