Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Okra....Must be a Southern Thing?

One of the livelier suppertime discussions when the girls were young and still living at home involved OKRA.

I kid you not! If you get two Virginia-born girls, one who likes okra and one who does NOT, into a debate on the vegetable’s finer points, I can assure you that the word YANKEE will fly fast and furious. The argument was never fully settled…and to this day, one of them still does NOT like okra (much)….and the "Y" word is still mentioned.

Okra is one of those things you either love or you hate. There are few that have tried it that feel truly ambivalent about it. Since it is a member of the mallow family, there is a mucilaginous quality of which to be aware. If the big word threw you….it means it might be slimy!

Brought to this country from Africa years and years ago, okra thrives in the heat and humidity that is summer in the south. Since the southern climate is so conducive to its growth, okra shows up in a variety of forms. Fried, boiled and gumbo are just some of the ways to prepare okra. It’s used in tropical climates around the world in everything from stir-fry to pickles; the leaves and seeds are even used in some cuisines.

As with any other vegetable, there is a peak point at which to harvest. If you want to use the okra for boiling, it must be tiny…no more than two inches long. Fried okra and some other applications allow for larger fruits. If it’s larger than your hand, give it to the chickens! (or add them to the compost pile)

When I was twelve, my grandfather lived with us for a summer while recovering from a heart attack. He had grown up on the farm, and loved fresh food fixed home-style. The salt restrictive diet that he had to follow wore on him after a while and he demanded okra…with salt. He only wanted the very tiny okra. He wanted them boiled slightly, and he wanted a touch of salt. His okra was cooked and salted and he ate it. He was happy. He insisted that we try some. EWWWW! Brother said it looked like slimy, little green caterpillars and bailed on eating anymore vegetables than absolutely necessary. I was not going to be bothered by that; I tried them. Green caterpillars or not, they were good! To this day, the memory of sharing that meal with Pop brings a smile.

Now, we generally eat them fried. If they are rolled in flour, an egg wash, followed by cornmeal and fried until golden brown, they are truly delicious. The breading eliminates any slime factor.

Every summer, I chop some and freeze them. It brings back a little of summer when we can have okra on a cold and snowy day.

It may be true that you MUST be from the South to truly appreciate OKRA. Here is a case in point; we had a chef do a cooking demonstration at the Saturday Market once years ago. This import from New Jersey did nothing to enhance his image with vendors or our Southern shoppers by disdaining the okra as “dog snot”. Needless to say, he didn’t do any more cooking demos!

My advice regarding okra would be…find a Southern cook willing to either share her (his) recipe ...or better yet…actually do the cookin’ for ya…and TRY okra! Then you can make an informed decision. I’m guessing you’ll come down on the “YUM” side regardless of your geographic background.

1 comment:

  1. Barbara,
    I stumbled upon your article whilst sitting here at my office desk eating okra. Pre-frozen mind you, but still just boiled and lightly salted and peppered. Okra is a vegetable from my childhood shared with my grandma and her sisters who were from Oklahoma. I wish we could grow it fresh in Nevada, but sadly the climate is too dry. Thank you for sharing your experience and you're right, it is nice to have a slice of summer in mid-winter. Oh the memories.