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.
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Coffee Snob

coffee 1Okay I admit it, the “best part of waking up” is not Folgers in my cup. It is not that I don’t like coffee, nor do I have anything against Folgers. Quite the contrary. Not only do I love coffee, but I am an official Starbuck’s Gold Card carrying coffee snob. And I rarely, if ever, buy anything but gourmet blends for my Keurig coffee maker—Starbucks, Peet’s, Seattle’s Best (purchased by Starbucks in 2003), and Melitta, to name my favorites. I also enjoy trying coffees blended by some of today’s new local/regional micro roasters such as Laughing Man, New York City and Cafeciteaux from Baton Rouge.

Popular legend has it that coffee was first discovered in 850 AD by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kadi, who noticed that his coffee bushgoats exhibited unnaturally energetic behavior after eating the berries of a certain bush. The intrigued Kadi decided to sample the berries himself. And after also experiencing a rush, he took some of the berries to the local monastery where after explaining their effects, the abbot declared them evil and tossed them into the fire. But the aroma of the burning coffee beans caught the attention of one of the young monks who fetched them from the fire and mixed them with water, producing a drink that kept him alert throughout the evening. After sharing his discovery with the other monks, word of the fragrant, energizing berry drink began to slowly travel throughout Ethiopia and beyond.

The first credible evidence of coffee as a drink first appeared in the Muslim monasteries around Yemen during the middle of the 15th century. It was here that coffee was first roasted and brewed much like it is today. According to the Islamic Sufi order, coffee was used to stay awake during religious rituals.

coffee-beansBy early in the next century coffee had spread throughout the entire Middle East, as well as northern Africa. Up to this point Arabia and Muslim Africa enjoyed a monopoly on the cultivation of coffee, thanks to laws that allowed roasted or baked beans to be exported but strictly forbid the export of fertile beans so that no one else could grow their own. However, in 1670 a Sufi named Baba Budan managed to smuggle seven fertile seeds (the number seven is considered by Muslim’s to be sacred) out of Yemen and plant them in Mysore, India. Those beans not only flourished but in fact are still producing today. For his efforts, Budan was made a saint and a region of India was named after him.

Because of robust trading between Venice, the Middle East and Northeast Africa, Italy was the first European country to be introduced to coffee. From there word quickly spread to the rest of Europe, Indonesia and America. Then in 1645, some 75 years after being first introduced, the first Venetian coffee house was opened in Rome, catering to travelers between Venice and the Ottomans.

It was Nathaniel Conopios, a Greek student attending Oxford, who is said to be the first person to have prepared and served coffee in England, as witnessed by another scholar, John Evelyn. Evelyn recorded the event in his diary in May of 1637:

“There came in my Time to the College one Nathaniel Conopios, out of Greece sent into England . . . and was the first that I ever saw drink Caffé, not heard of then in England, nor until many years after made a common entertainment all over the nation . . . .“

Although Conopios was soon expelled from the university, his tenure initiated the use of coffee among its students. Nonetheless England as a whole, like many other countries, was slow to embrace this relatively new beverage. It was 1650 before England’s first coffeehouse would open near the university. The popularity of this coffeehouse among Oxford’s intellectual community led to the establishment of the Oxford Coffee Club, which ultimately became the world-renowned scientific think tank, England’s Royal Society.

“Tipping Is Born

Sometime around 1668, not only had England’s coffee houses gained tremendous popularity and had become the place of choice for many meetings, they became overly crowded and customer service suffered. In an attempt to overcome the service issues coin boxes were conspicuously placed around with a sign stating: “To Insure Prompt Service.” T-I-P-S.

It was also about this time that coffee became more popular than beer as New York’s favorite breakfast beverage.

The late 1600s and early 1700s saw the British East India Company rise to become one of the world’s largest coffee importers, london coffeehousemarking England’s love for the new beverage. During this time as many as 3,000 coffeehouses popped up all over England (also called “penny universities,” because for a penny one could buy a cup of coffee and engage in stimulating conversation). But it would be 1652 before a Greek servant named Pasqua Rosee opened London’s first coffeehouse. By the early 1700s coffee’s popularity had soared and the number of London coffee houses exceeded 500.

After the British conquest of India and their tea business, the British decided to get out of the coffee business, leaving it to the larger Dutch and French trading companies. Doing so reduced coffee consumption in England in favor of tea which had become cheaper as well as an easier beverage to make.

It was actually the Dutch who are said to be the ones to end the Muslims’ monopoly of coffee, when in the late 1600s a Dutch Governor acquired and planted seedlings on the island of Batavia (now Jarkata). By 1704 the first coffee from those plants was harvested. Later, seedlings from these plants were brought as gifts to kings and dignitaries throughout Europe, including France’s King Louis XIV.

In 1723 a French Naval Officer named Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, coffee_treeseedlings_1feeling that the climate in Martinique where he was stationed was perfect for growing coffee, went before King Louis XIV and asked for a cutting from one of the ten-year-old trees in the Royal Botanical Garden. After being denied his request, he successfully stole a cutting and promptly sailed it back to the Caribbean which rightfully proved to the ideal climate for growing coffee. Within three years coffee plantations spread throughout Martinique, St. Dominique and Guadeloupe, and the brash officer was forgiven for his transgressions. It was this one stolen coffee sprout from which all coffee trees in the Caribbean, South and Central America originated.

Four years later another theft of the French’s sacred coffee trees took place, this time by Brazilian Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta, who with the help of the French Guiana Governor’s wife was able to get away with fresh coffee seedlings. It was these cuttings that allowed Brazil to become the world’s largest coffee empire.

Since first coming to American’s New Amsterdam (New York City) in the mid-1600s, coffee and coffeehouses (the first coffeehouse in America opened in Boston in October of 1676) have been responsible for a number of significant historic events:

  • 1773: Colonists met at the Green Dragon coffeehouse to plan the Boston Tea Party and the first steps toward independence.
  • 1790: Wealthy and influential men met at the Merchant’s Coffee House on New York’s Wall Street and for the first time bought and sold public stocks while having morning coffee.
  • 1972: Two dozen men met under a sycamore tree (also known by locals as a buttonwood tree) across the street from Merchant’s Coffee House to establish rules by which they would trade stocks. With these rules, known as the “Buttonwood Agreement,” the New York Stock Exchange was born. Later that year they moved to a room on the second floor of the Tontine Coffee House where it remained until 1817.

Other significant milestones in America’s coffee history include:

  • 1860: Instead of panning for gold nuggets in the hills and streams of the Sierras, James Folger stayed in San Francisco where he made his fortune by founding J. A. Folgers Coffee Company.
  • 1864: Jabez Burns of New York was granted a U.S. patent for his Burns coffee roaster.
  • 1865: James Nason received a patent for America’s first coffee percolator.
  • 1871: John Arbuckle invented a machine that efficiently roasted, ground and packaged his “Arbuckle Ariosa” coffee, making it the first mass-produced coffee. Arbuckle eventually became the largest importer of coffee in the world.
  • 1886: Joel Cheek named his coffee “Maxwell House” after the famous Nashville hotel. He also adopted President Theodore Roosevelt’s comment as his advertising slogan–“Good to the Last Drop.”
  • 1900: Hills Brothers became the first coffee packed in vacuum-sealed tins.
  • 1906: George Constant Louis Washington invented “instant coffee.” During the 1970s almost a third of all coffee consumed in the U.S. was instant coffee.

0950s coffeehouseBy the mid-1950s a modern generation of coffeehouses began a resurgence throughout America, but especially in San Francisco’s North Beach and New York’s Greenwich Village. Frequented by a segment of our society known as Beatniks. Made up of freethinking artists, musicians and poets, they provided a venue for philosophical and political discussions that challenged the status quo.

In 1966 a Dutch-American by the name of Alfred Peet opened Peet’s Coffee in Berkeley, California. Having learned the trade from his PeetsCoffee1father, who had a small coffee roasting business in the Netherlands, Alfred introduced America to the strong, deeply-roasted Arabica coffee that has become so popular today.

Three of Alfred Peet’s friends, Jerry Baldwin, Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegl, wanted to learn coffee roasting and asked to work in his Berkeley store over the 1970 Christmas holiday. In March of 1971 the three formed a partnership and, with Alfred’s blessings, opened the first Starbucks in Seattle, Washington. Not only did they model themselves after the original Peet’s location, but they in fact bought their beans from Peet for their first year in business.

In 1979 Alfred Peet sold his coffee business to Sal Bonavita but stayed on as a consultant until 1984 when Baldwin and a group of investors bought the four Bay Area Peet’s locations. Three years later Baldwin and his group sold Starbucks to Howard Schultz in order to focus on growing Peet’s. Today Peet’s Coffee & Tea is a privately held subsidiary of Joh. A. Beckiser, a German holding company.

As previously mentioned, Starbucks began in 1971 essentially as a clone of Alfred Peet’s Berkeley operation, even buying and selling his beans in the beginning. The first Starbucks was located on Western Avenue in Seattle but was later moved to Pike Place Market in 1976 where it remains today. The name Starbucks was taken from the chief mate in the book Moby-Dick.

For the first five years, Starbucks sold only whole roasted beans. In fact, the only brewed coffee served in their store was free samples used to pique interest in their beans. By 1986 starbucks-beansStarbucks owned six stores in and around Seattle and had just begun selling brewed espresso. Real growth, and the beginning of what they are today, began in 1987 after a former employee and owner of Giornale coffee stores, Howard Schultz, bought Starbucks. Schultz quickly rebranded his eleven outlets as Starbucks and opened the company’s first locations outside of Seattle. Two years later the chain had grown to 46 stores across the Northwest and Midwest, and was roasting more than two million pounds of coffee.

Starbucks has continued expansion throughout the U.S. and other countries, purchasing regional brands including Seattle’s Best and Torrefazione Italia to name only a couple. Further growth occurred by venturing outside of coffee with the purchase of Teavana and Tazo teas, Ethos water and Fizzio handcrafted sodas. In 2009 Starbucks began selling salads, sandwiches and pastries produced by the La Boulange Bakery.

Today Starbucks stands as the largest coffeehouse in the world with almost 23,000 stores in 65 countries, including Canada, the U.K., Japan and China, and sales of more than 16 billion dollars.

My at home favorites are Starbucks Pike Roast and both Peet’s Domingo and Major Dickason’s, which are all medium-roast coffees. My wife likes Starbucks Veranda, a lighter blend which they call “blonde” roast.

latteWhen I visit my local Starbucks store (and that is quite often) my standard go-to morning drink is a Venti latté with an extra shot of espresso. But if it happens to be a hot spring or summer day, my choice is always a Trenta (yes, they now offer a 31-ounce size) Mocha Frappuccino, an icy-cold beverage Starbucks acquired in 1995 through the purchase of The Coffee Connection.

So there you have it, a brief history of the beverage most of us love and many cannot start their day without–coffee. As for myself, I drink coffee throughout the day. In fact, much of this story was written while having an inspiring latté at my local Starbucks. Think I’ll close my laptop and order another to go.