My childhood was not particularly ethnic. I grew up in middle class suburbia and went to affluent public schools. We got Chinese takeout, and I was ignorant enough to probably think all Asian food tasted the same back then. I don’t think I ate sushi until college. Even then, I ate it thinking I was a James Dean rebel eating raw fish with the similar gusto of a health inspector’s son ordering a rare steak (my dad is a health inspector).
In college, I learned that Thai is my preferred Asian cuisine. My family came around to this conclusion, too. Maybe Thai food just didn’t exist in Virginia Beach in the Bush and Clinton years. However, as much as I loved Thai food, I never tried Thai iced tea.
In late college, I visited my friend who lived in Chesterfield. Petrina’s mom is Thai. Her parents met during one of the southeast Asian wars our country was so fond of in the ‘60s. On the occasion of my visit, Petrina’s brother was also visiting and bringing his girlfriend who no one had yet met (spoiler: they married a couple of years after this). Petrina’s mom showcased her culinary expertise to wow her future daughter-in-law.
She asked what I wanted to drink. I instinctively said water.
“No tea?” she asked.
I don’t like tea. I think it tastes like watered down, well, water.
“It’s Thai iced tea,” Petrina interjected.
“What is that?”
“You’ll like it. It’s sweet.”
Indeed, I loved Thai iced tea. What was this creamy vanilla spiced decadence? I had three glasses that night.
For a while after that, I got Thai iced tea anytime I went to a Thai restaurant. This became pretty easy, especially in Virginia Beach since my dad is a health inspector so they always remembered me when I came in with him. At one particular restaurant, they continually bestowed me with Thai iced tea every time I came in, dad or no dad.
Then at some point, while visiting another friend of Vietnamese heritage, the topic of Thai iced tea came up because she offered to make me Vietnamese coffee. “What’s in that?” I asked. “It’s so good, I need to learn how to make it.”
“It’s just like Thai iced tea,” she said. “Sugar and condensed milk.”
To be clear, Thai iced tea is typically made from black tea, sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk. These are not things on the South Beach, Atkins, or Whole 30 diets. With the power of an iPhone in hand, I learned that typical Thai iced tea ranges from 280 to 410 calories.
Holy—what? That night at Petrina’s, I drank, like, three glasses.
In case you didn’t know, in my childhood I was a fat kid. Like, I was morbidly obese. I lost 100 lbs. in late high school. Okay, to be exact, I lost 97 lbs. I went from 248 lbs. at 14-years-old to 151 at 17. I lost most of this weight through exercise and, uh, guess what, watching what I ate. For example, I did not eat fast food fries for over a decade. I have not drunk real soda in years.
And you’re telling me I consumed a 1,000+ calories from this vanilla iced tea? I gaped internally.
A few months later, I visited Petrina again. Upon arrival, she asked if I wanted anything to drink. Then she told me: “My mom remembered how much you loved Thai iced tea last time you were here, so she made two pitchers for you.”
“Pitchers?!” I repeated.
“Cazey!” Petrina's mom walked into the kitchen and hugged me. “Tea?” she prompted.
“C’mon, she made two pitchers,” Petrina said.
So I drank my first glass.
“More?” Petrina's mom smiled.
Well, I did run today. I shrugged.
I tried to drink the tea slowly. It was good. So good. But I was not trying to gain the freshman 15 in a day. One glass was fine. One pitcher was fine.
At dinner, Petrina’s mom announced that the first pitcher was almost done. “Phew,” I thought. She had served everyone tea at dinner so I wasn’t the primary culprit.
“I might have to make another pitcher,” she laughed.
In the morning, her mom asked if I wanted coffee. “Or tea?”
I really didn’t. I tried asking for water. I got both.
Petrina and I had decided earlier that we would work out that morning. We drove to Petrina’s old high school and did bleacher runs and laps around the track. This was a July weekend. Even if we hadn’t worked out, we would’ve been sweating. Absolutely disgusting, we returned to Petrina’s house. I let Petrina shower first.
As I sat in the kitchen, her mom pulled out the second pitcher. She smiled. Without saying a word, she began to pour me a glass.
In that moment—sticky, un-showered, 2,000 calories of Thai iced tea already in me from the last 24 hours—the last thing I wanted was a glass of Thai iced tea. I imagined the heavy cream, the sweetness, dripping down my throat. I almost gagged. But then I found my hand enclosing around the ice cold cup, bringing the nectar to my lips, and it was as if all objections melted away. A poison that weakens the drinker, I finished the tea and smiled.
Petrina reappeared. Her mom offered tea. “No, Mom, I don’t want that,” she said.
Why couldn’t I say that?
Petrina moved to Boston soon after that. My visits to her no longer included her mom or tea. However, back in Virginia Beach, my family and I visited a specific Thai restaurant every time I came home. Without prompting, the owner always brought me a huge glass of Thai iced tea. Sometimes I drank it, but other times I did not feel like consuming 32 oz. of condensed cream.
“How’s school?” the owner asked while placing the tea on the table, a huge beam stretched across her lips. The smile might as well have said: “You’re too thin, drink this cream.”
She noticed I hadn’t finished the tea at the end of the meal. “Do you want it to go? Let me get you a cup.”
The cup was huge. It had to be. It was 32 oz. of tea. Possibly 46.
“Thank you so much,” I said. This was actually manageable. I could drink a little bit of tea every day instead of developing diabetes in a single meal.
In my mom’s van, I tried to put the cup in the cup holder. The cup was too large. I pressed a little harder. The flaps meant to secure a drink in the cup holder punctured the Styrofoam. Pale orange cream flooded the cup holder, flooding the loose change and threatening to brim over into the rest of the car.
My mom shrieked. I jumped back. I quickly found a towel to mop up the mess.
Needless to say, I never got to drink those 46 oz. of sugar. My waist is better for it.
In the last couple of years, I’ve gotten by pretty well without Thai iced tea. I’ve had it here or there, but I haven’t been threatened with 46 oz. of it. My family has even visited the same Thai restaurant again. Lately she gifts us fried spring rolls for the whole table. Maybe she noticed my extinguished enthusiasm for Thai iced tea.
Then, last night, my mom, brother, and I showed up. “How have you been?” the owner hovered over our table. “What do you want to drink? All waters?” She smiled.
She returned soon—with three waters and two 32 oz. glasses of Thai iced tea for my brother and me.
“You didn’t think you could escape my Thai iced tea?” She grinned.