Rita Howell’s column

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 13, 2007

‘Best tea’ contest triggered best tea party in Batesville

Word was out Tuesday that we were conducting the Best Tea in Town contest at The Panolian.

We had lined up our three celebrity judges: Coach Lance Pogue, our columnist Sherry Hopkins and businessman and local yokel Ricky Swindle.

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But folks came out of the woodwork to try the tea. These hangers-on didn’t get a vote. They just got to help us drink what was left.

And there was a lot left.

In all, 17 establishments sent jugs of sweet tea for the contest. We had anticipated that we might have an overflow, and we decided early on that, with the possibility of an abundance of tea available in the office, we just needed some food to go with it.

We had a hoe-down.

Beverly brought corn and tomatoes from her garden. Debbie coordinated the event and brought chicken salad, pimiento cheese and chocolate cake. Becky made her signature sausage bars and Myra coerced her daughter Danielle into making brownies after a late-night ballgame Monday.

Terri, by popular demand, brought her broccoli and cheese casserole. There were baked beans, salads and desserts. The judges stayed and ate lunch with us.

The 20-something Panolian employees and various spouses, nieces, and other kin folks didn’t make a dent in the food or the tea. So we offered plates of food to everyone who came in to conduct business that afternoon.

Piece of cake with that subscription? Care for a helping of corn with that classified ad order?

We kept secret the identity of the purveyor of the Best Tea in Town until today when we published the results on our front page.

All we told the judges and the assembled throng was “the winner is number eight.”

Ben Floyd, the intern who came last summer and stayed, had calculated the judges’ scores. Each jug was numbered so the judges didn’t know whose tea they were drinking.

The tea that received a perfect score from all three judges was made at Cracker Barrel by Mary Sutton.

“All Cracker Barrels use the same recipe,” employee training coordinator Vicki Fuoco told me when I went there Wednesday morning to present them with the “Best Tea in Town” plaque from The Panolian.

The key is freshness, said the Pennsylvania native who moved down south 14 years ago to be near relatives in Batesville.

The C.B. tea is made fresh all day long in two-and-a half-gallon batches, using a special blend of orange pekoe and pekoe cut black tea from the Royal Cup tea company of Birmingham, Ala.

“You can’t buy the tea in our store,” Fuoco said. “The only way you can get it is to order a glass in our restaurant.”

 The tea-brewing urn is fastidiously cleaned every night, Fuoco said. All 54 servers know how to make the tea to the company’s exacting standards, she said.

Mary Sutton, who sports four gold stars on her brown apron, has worked at the Batesville Cracker Barrel for eight years and didn’t want The Panolian to give away too many of their tea-brewing secrets.

For her own consumption at home in the Eureka community, she keeps a pitcher of decaffeinated tea sweetened with sugar. The tea’s not even an exotic variety, just Lipton from the grocery store, she said.