As I’ve indicated in other food columns, sometimes you can learn a lot about American history through the history behind dishes that Americans enjoy. Okra is one of those foods.
According to the Texas AgriLife Extension Services, okra found its way to America from Africa, probably through the African slaves of French colonists settling in what now is Louisiana.
Its popularity quickly spread, and it’s known to have found its way to Philadelphia by 1748. I can’t imagine what we put in our gumbo until then.
Actually, gumbo is another African word for okra, but we tend to use it to describe a delicious stew that includes shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage along with the okra, onions, green peppers, celery, tomatoes and spices.
I’ve never tried to make my own gumbo, but I use okra generously in homemade vegetable soup. If I want gumbo, I visit the Blackwater Grill on St. Simons Island.
Success has alluded me in growing okra. They’ll come up but not produce any pods. I remember noticing a large field of okra when I was a boy and asking Papa why he never planted okra.
He told me he didn’t have time for okra because you had to plant it late at night on a full moon. You also had to use nothing but chicken manure for fertilizer. Because I was a little older and used to Papa pulling my leg, I asked him if it mattered what kind of chickens provided the manure.
Did they have to be laying hens, or would fryers do? He just looked at me and grinned. I think that meant he knew I was growing up and not the same little fellah he kept preoccupied with his advice about holding “my mouth right” in order to catch more fish.
Hinesville Assistant City Manager Kenneth Howard recently told me what I’ve been doing wrong when planting okra. Mama once told me you don’t plant okra with your other veggies in the early spring. Howard confirmed this advice, telling me that you’ve got to wait until the soil is hot.
He said he waited until late May this year to plant his okra. He also allowed his okra seeds to soak in water overnight before planting them. He now has a large patch of okra in his 1/4-acre garden.
When I buy okra nowadays, I usually get about a pound. My wife will thoroughly wash each pod to remove any dirt or pesticide residue then clip off the two end pieces. She’ll slice each pod into half-inch pieces, apply salt and pepper, then roll them in a mixture of yellow corn meal and just a little all-purpose flour.
These commercial brands of battered okra nuggets, which often find their way to restaurant tables, are nothing like the okra I grew up eating or the way my wife fixes it now. Okra nuggets are better than no okra at all but not the way I like it.
My wife’s sliced pods are not smothered with batter. They have just enough breading sticking to them to give the cooking oil something to fry. The veggie itself would otherwise cook too quickly.
A habit I developed as a kid was mixing my fried okra with fresh, cream-style corn. We had a large family on a small military income, so competition at the table was commonplace. My siblings would not dare touch my plate, though, if my veggies were mixed.
Their palates weren’t capable of accepting two or more flavors at a time. They had a hard time with Mama’s yellow squash, zucchini and green onions and my fried okra mixed into corn.
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned in my pickle article that I look for pickled okra on every salad bar. If you haven’t tried pickled okra, please do or at least put it on your “bucket list.”
If you’ve never tried okra — pickled, fried or stewed in a soup or gumbo — you’ve denied your taste buds a real treat. It’s not one of my motivating factors, but if it helps to know this, okra also is full of vitamins and minerals. It tastes good, and it’s good for you.
There. Now try it.
Email Murray at firstname.lastname@example.org.