Okra: Ladies’ Fingers of the South

I actually can’t remember not liking okra, even as a kid who really wasn’t all that fond of many vegetables. It mattered not to me if it was stewed with or without tomatoes, or breaded and fried. I really liked okra just about any way it was prepared. And to this day I still do. 

Being lucky enough to have a wife who loves gardening and also shares my love of okra, she grows it almost every year. In years past, the plants grew only about five or six feet tall and were somewhat spindly. But this year was totally different. The plants grew to over eight feet tall, were extremely bushy but didn’t make a single flower and therefore produced no okra. That is until about the last week of August when the plants seemed to suddenly realize they were supposed to produce fruit. So they did! Seemingly to make up for the slow start, they began producing a plethora of new flowers every day and within a week we were getting more okra than we ever imagined. It  grew so fast that we were having to harvest every two or three days. In fact, we had so much okra we were giving it away to just about anyone who would take it. Even then, we were constantly trying new okra recipes in an effort to utilize as much of those delicious pods as possible—pickling it, cooking it with fresh tomatoes, freezing it, frying it, making fritters, and more.

Okra (Hibiscus esculentus) is a member of the Mallow family, therefore related to hollyhock and to cotton. A tall heat loving tropical annual, okra is cultivated primarily for its edible seed pods which can vary in color from green to red, depending on the variety. It has large heart-shaped leaves and yellow to cream colored, hibiscus-like flowers that open only for one day before becoming a three-inch to ten-inch long tapered seed pod, within 24 to 48 hours. It is these pods that are used as a vegetable. 

Ideally picked when only three to six inches in length in order to preserve its tender texture and sweet flavor, okra pods if allowed to fully develop, can grow to over ten-inches long becoming woody and totally inedible. Young okra leaves can also be used in salads or prepared like any other greens. 

Okra, or ladies’ fingers as the pods are sometimes referred to because of their long, tapered, finger-like shape, is thought by many historians to have originated in east Africa. It was cultivated as early as the 12th century BC in and around Ethiopia, including portions of Eritrea, and Egypt. From there it traveled eastward to Arabia and other Mediterranean countries, including India. By the year 2,000 BC okra has spread throughout western and southern Africa by way of the Bantu tribes fleeing Egypt. In fact, West African slaves brought to America referred to okra as “ngombo,” the Bantu word for gumbo. That name (among others) stuck with deep Southerners for many years but today gumbo is a dish in which okra is an ingredient. The word “okra,” first came to be used in 1679 in the Virginia Colony, also came from West Africans, a derivative of their word “nkruma.”

One of the earliest accounts of okra being used as a foodstuff is by Spanish Moors traveling through Egypt in 1216. They described the Egyptians cultivating okra and incorporating the young pods into their meals.

Okra arrived in the Southern United States by way of the Caribbean at the beginning of the slave trade in the 1500s. Like rice, okra was one of the few crop seeds slaves were able to smuggle from their West African homes. It’s recorded that seeds of these and other seeds and grains were braided into the the hair of children in order to ensure they had familiar sustenance in the new and unknown land to which they were headed. And other stories about slaves making the treacherous voyage to America with okra seeds hidden in their ears. 

While slow to gain popularity in much of the country it was quickly accepted by Louisiana’s French colonists where they used it extensively in soups and stews. By 1748 okra was being grown as far north as Philadelphia and in 1781 Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president proclaimed it a well know crop in Virginia. Jefferson, proud of the okra he grew at his home in Monticello, described himself as a “very old man but a very young gardener.” By 1806 there were several known varieties of okra being grown in the American South.

Okra is one of those foods that you either like or don’t like. Those with an aversion to okra are turned off by its sliminess—the glutinous substance known as mucilage that develops when cooked. But it’s this characteristic gooeyness that’s also one of okra’s beneficial traits. Not only can it thicken soups, stews, and sauces, it’s also high in fiber, one of okras numerous health assets. Other health benefits include low fats and calories, high in vitamins C and K, minerals such as iron and potassium and antioxidants. This superfood is also thought to contain properties that may benefit pregnant women, heart health and cholesterol and blood sugar control.

In addition to being used in many popular culinary dishes, okra seeds have been roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute. Okra and its parts have also been used to produce a number commercial applications—cooking oils, biofuel, strengthen polymer composites, treating waste water, and biodegradable food packaging. 

If you’re an okra eater, chances are you’ve had the Clemson Spineless variety, since its meaty, dark green, slightly grooved pods account for about 90% of all commercially grown okra. Clemson pods are full flavored and can be prepared in any way you care to make them, from stewed to fried, roasted to sautéed. For you gardeners in the audience, this variety is easy to grow and an excellent producer, developing in about 55 days and ready to  harvest four days after flowering.

Another excellent variety for your garden is Louisiana Green Velvet. Although a bit more picky, taking about two months to mature, this heirloom plant is very popular in the state for which it is named. Delicious fried or in gumbo. 

Have you ever seen red okra? Many people don’t know red okra exists, since when it’s cooked it turns green just like any other. To retain its unique aesthetic appeal red okra must be served raw or pickled. There are several varieties of red okra—Red Burgundy, Little Lucy, Hill Country Red, Aunt Hettie’s Red, and Red Velvet. Red okra can be prepared in any way that green varieties can be. And their taste is indiscernible from that of green okra.

So there you have it. Some facts and other information about one of my absolute favorite fruits. Oh, didn’t I mention that okra is actually a fruit that we eat as a vegetable? Because it develops from the ovary of the flower and contains seeds needed to reproduce, it is technically a fruit, as are string beans, peas, squash, eggplant, avocados, tomatoes, and bell peppers.

And for you culinary adventurers, I have included this popular New Orleans dish for your cooking pleasure:

Okra & Tomatoes with Gulf Shrimp

Serves 6 people

Whatcha Need:
1-1/2 pounds large (15-20 size) raw shrimp, peeled & deveined
4-1/2 teaspoons Louisiana Cajun Seasoning, divided
9 slices hickory smoked bacon, chopped
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups diced fresh or frozen okra
1-1/2 cups diced Roma tomatoes, seeded
1-1/2 cup Louisiana Salsa, medium
12 ounces clam juice
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
3 green onions, thinly sliced
3 cups cooked rice

Whatcha Do:

  1. In a large bowl, put shrimp and 2-1/4 teaspoons Cajan seasoning and toss to ensure all shrimp are coated. Set aside.
  2. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until browned and crisp. Using a slotted spoon, remove bacon to paper towels to drain. Add flour to bacon drippings and cook, stirring constantly, until roux is dark brown, 5-7 minutes. Be careful not to burn.
  3. Add okra, salsa, and diced tomatoes and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add clam juice and cook, stirring often, until thickened. Add shrimp and cook an additional 5 minutes or until just opaque. Stir in parsley, geen onions, and cooked bacon. 
  4. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve over rice.


 When I was about eight years old our family moved to a home in a new North Texas suburban development. Now at that time new homes didn’t come with sodded yards, shrubs, trees, or fences. Ours came with a blackland dirt yard, lots of Johnsongrass and other obnoxious prairie grasses, in both the front and backyards. It also came with a small bush with large dark green leaves located in one corner of our back yard, just inside the property line from the vacant field behind us. A bush that each spring was full of small pear-shaped yellow-green to reddish brown fruits. A bush that was also home to a huge nest of yellow jacket wasps. A bush that for some unknown reason my father refused to cut down.

I remember asking my father about the bush and was told it was a wild fig and that those bulbous fruits growing on it every year were edible, but that he didn’t like figs. So between the wasps and being told the fruit wasn’t tasty, I don’t recall ever trying one in the entire ten years we lived there. A decision I later regretted since figs have become one of my favorite fruits. In fact I like them so much that my wife and I planted a Celeste Fig (looks like the one from my childhood) from which we harvest and enjoy its abundance every year.

The fig, a member of the Moraceae (mulberry) family, is native to Western Asia and the Mediterranean. Dating back to ancient times the fig was believed to be one of the earliest plants cultivated by the human race. In fact, a number of sub-fossil remnants dating back to 9,000 BC were found in the excavations of a Neolithic village a few miles north of Jericho, predating the domestication of wheat and barley.

The mention of figs and the fig tree appear numerous times in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It was fig leaves that Adam and Eve used to cover themselves after Adam partook of the forbidden fruit. In fact there are a number of scholars who believe that fruit to be a fig instead of an apple. Figs also hold symbolic positions not only in Christianity but in many other world religions including Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism.

There are about 800 species of the Ficus family with Ficus cariac, common fig, probably being the most popular and commercial important. Other well known varieties include the banyans and Peepul (sacred) figs.

The fig plant can be a deciduous tree or shrub that can grow to a height of 25 to 30 feet with a smooth light grey bark and large fragrant green leaves with three to five deep lobes. Its fruit is technically not a fruit but a syconium—a tear-shaped sac measuring one to two inches in length, each filled with more than 1,000 tiny unisexual flowers later becoming small seeded fruits. The syconium skin is green, turning yellowish white to brown or dark purple as they ripen. The milky sap that runs from a freshly picked fruit can be an irritant when it comes in contact with human skin.

Most fig varieties are pollinated by tiny fig wasps that enter the fruit through a narrow passage or ostiole in the middle of the fruit. But some fig species such as the Ficus cariac do not need pollination by the fig wasp. These species are usually grown in colder climates where fig wasps are not present.

Figs came to America in 1769 when Father Junipero Serra first planted them in the Mission San Diego in California. Their fruit is know as Black Mission figs. Purplish black on the outside, pink inside with a heady flavor, black figs, as with the kadota and the Adriatic figs, do not need wasp cultivation.

California became a commercial fig producer in 1900 and remains the leading fig producer in the United States with most of its annual 30 million pound crop being dried. Ripe figs are very perishable and therefore do not ship well.

There are two crops of figs a year. In California the first crop is harvested from June to early July and because of the short season is less bountiful than the second crop which is harvested from mid-August through October.

Black Mission figs are, of course, one of the most popular varieties and are widely grown all over. In fact Black Mission figs are what is used in Fig Newton cookies. Other popular varieties include Brown Turkey, Calimyrna (also known as Smyrna), Kota, and White Adriatic.

While California and Texas are the largest growers of figs in the United States, they’re responsible for only about 2% of the 1.27 million tons of world production. That top honor goes to Turkey with 320,000 tons grown annually. In fact, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria account for about 62% of the world’s total.

Figs are delicious whether fresh or dried. They’re great for making jam and using in a large variety of savory dishes as well as numerous baked goods.

The average fig contains only 74 calories and 1% fat. They’re also a good source of fiber containing about 14% of the Daily Value making them ideal for reducing blood pressure and controlling cholesterol. Unfortunately with a 64% carbohydrate content diabetics should consume them sparingly.

So there you have it. A brief story about one of my favorite fruits. And with that, I think I’ll go harvest some figs so I can make a tart for dinner tonight. If you’d like to try your hand baking with figs, you’ll find some mouthwatering fig recipes in the recipe section of this blog.

The Fig Newton

Born more than 130 years ago, Fig Newtons were one of the first mass produced baked products in the United States. Invented in 1891 by Charles Roser a Philadelphia baker who sold his recipe, based on the British fig roll, to Boston’s Kennedy Biscuit Company. Later that same year James Henry Mitchel, an inventor who worked for the KBC revolutionized the way Fig Newtons were made. His machine worked like a funnel within a funnel—one extruded the soft cake like dough, while at the same time another funnel pumped the fig jam filling—producing a continuous length of cookie which was then cut into smaller pieces.

In 1898 a major merger between the New York Biscuit company (owner of eight bakeries including Kennedy Biscuit Company) and the Chicago based American Biscuit Company (owner of 40 midwestern bakeries) to form the National Biscuit Company. In 1941 National Biscuit Company changed its name to Nabisco. Of course all recipes of the two companies, the extrusion machine, and several other of Mitchel’s cookie making inventions were part of every merger.

There are a number of people who believe in the myth that the Fig Newton was named after Sir Issac Newton. But that is only a myth. Kennedy Biscuit Company’s plant manager, James Hazen, had a penchant for naming their products after small towns in and around Boston. Fig Newtons are named after Newton, Massachusetts. By the way, Fig Newtons were known as Fig Cake in its Finest Form from the first year it was produced until the 1980s when it became a “chewy cookie.”

Up until the 1980s the only Newtons available were the Fig Newton. However in 1986 the company began offering limited versions of the Fig Newton with variations, the first being apple cinnamon and strawberry Newtons. They were followed by raspberry, cherry, blueberry. and mixed berry. In 2012 the company dropped “fig” from its name altogether. Today, what once was America’s third most popular cookie is now known only as Newtons.