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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Southern Fried Chicken: America’s Ultimate Comfort Food. And Mine.

Log_House_Restaurant_2

As I’ve mentioned before, ours was a family of modest means. But my father worked hard to see that we were able to afford some of life’s nicer things. An occasional dinner at the “Log House” after Sunday’s church service was one of the more pleasurable of them. And one of my life experiences I will likely never forget.

The Log House, as the name implies, was a real log cabin in which a popular restaurant was housed. It was unique, affordable, and located right on the way home from our house of worship. But best of all, this restaurant specialized in southern fried chicken–one of my family’s favorite meals.

My mother always ordered first. Two pieces of dark meat for herself; a drumstick for my sister; a chicken breast for me. Then my father would order the three-piece white chicken dinner for himself–“extra crispy”, with mashed potatoes and green beans. Afterwards, looking our server in the eye while putting togetherfried chicken dinner the thumbs and index fingers of both hands to demonstrate the size, he would add “with a little bowl of cream gravy.” After the waitress left to fetch our meal, my mom would exclaim, “Albert, why do you always do that? You know it comes with a side of gravy.” And with a slight look of exasperation on his face he would calmly answer, “I know, I know. I just don’t want her to forget.”

Now for those of you not familiar with southern fried chicken (and I’m not sure who that could possibly be) the following paragraphs will attempt to clarify what it is, its origin, and perhaps a few other interesting facts.

fried-chicken-basket

Simply put, southern fried chicken consists of a young hen that has been cut up–usually into eight pieces–dredged first in buttermilk, then in well seasoned flour, and fried in lard (or some other fat) in a cast iron skillet, rendering the exterior with a crispy outer shell that keeps the meat juicy and tender. And while this may sound straightforward enough, making great fried chicken is an art mastered by only a few, and then only after months, sometimes years, of practice, trial, and error. It is also worth noting that the term “southern fried” is a relatively recent term, not appearing in print until 1925.

While fried chicken was not particularly popular in the northern United States until well into the nineteenth century, it is certainly a traditional southern meal and among the region’s most well known exports. But the dish is not indigenous to the South. Actually, most food historians credit Scottish immigrants–who preferred frying their chicken over baking or boiling, as did other Europeans–with first introducing the dish to Southern colonies as they migrated here in the mid eighteenth century. And while the Scots may have brought fried chicken to America, it was West Africans, brought here as slaves, that helped make it a southern staple.

Fried chicken is known to have been a common part of many West African cuisines. As the slave trade led to Africans being brought to work on southern plantations, those whose job it was to cook for the owners brought with them spices and seasonings that greatly enhanced the flavors of Scottish fried chicken recipes. Fried chicken was also well suited for plantation life, as it provided cheap but nutritious sustenance for both owners and slaves alike. And chickens were about the only meat African American slaves were allowed to raise.

Gordonville VA chicken vendors

As the American Civil War began to wind down and it became necessary for former slaves to create new lives for themselves, some turned to trades learned during slavery. But one group of African American women from the town of Gordonsville, Virginia turned to fried chicken as a means of providing a living for themselves and their families, earning the name “Chicken Vendors” along the way.

It seems Gordonsville was an important train junction for the Confederacy and, as such, highly defended during the Civil War, surviving virtually unscathed. When the war ended in 1865, passenger service was restored quickly. But trains at that time had no dining cars, and passengers had no choice but to eat at trackside establishments. The Chicken Vendors greeted the waiting rail cars with trays of fried chicken and baskets of rolls, selling wares to passengers through open windows–legs and breast was fifteen cents; backs and wings, five and ten cents. This practice continued until the mid-1900s when health regulations forced it to stop.

By the end of the nineteenth century the popularity of fried chicken in the South had grown to become the region’s top choice for Sunday dinner and special occasions among both blacks and whites. Today fried chicken, like America itself, has taken on a new look. Modern, forward thinking chefs craft versions of this classic dish never before fathomed and certainly a far cry from Southern Fried Chicken 002that first recipe published by Mary Randolph in her 1824 cookbook The Virginia House-Wife. And although good fried chicken can be found in just about every state in the country, great fried chicken can, at least in my mind, only be found in the South. Places like Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, or the Busy Bee Cafe in Atlanta.

So while the Log House Restaurant burned down many years ago, those childhood after-church Sunday dinners and my father’s “little bowl of cream gravy” will forever be etched in my memory. And the taste of fried chicken forever on my tongue.

Try Em: Charles’ Country Pan Fried Country, Harlem, NY; Mama Dip’s Kitchen, Chapel Hill, NC; Coop’s Place, New Orleans, LA; Harold’s Chicken Shack, Chicago, IL; Stroud’s, Kansas City, MO; Arnold’s Country Chicken, Nashville, TN; Chicken Dinner House, Roanoke, TX

Make Em: Grandma’s Fried Chicken, Paula’s Spicy Southern Fried Chicken