Free Okra

The Oxford American #49, April 2005

It was at the age of seven, at my grandmother’s table in Calcutta, that I formed a taste for okra. Indians often call okra “lady’s fingers,” and the preparations that came off the charcoal fire that the village-raised cook preferred to the kitchen stove were everything that the name connotes: smooth, delicate, and perfumed. Mustard oil infused the okra slices and deepened their flavor. Cumin, turmeric, or chilies added zest. This was okra unabashed and uncut, the perfect offset to a classic Bengali meal of pungent river fish and simple steamed rice. The pods were rich, pillowy, and moist. I became hooked on okra for life.

In its Indian context, the green pod is ubiquitous and uncontroversial. So when I came to the United States, I was unprepared to find the vegetable in ill repute. Though commonly grown in Southern gardens, it is also roundly disliked. Its proponents seem to divide into nostalgics and militants. Everyone else is an okra hater.

I quickly discovered that okraphobia hinges on the pod’s characteristic texture. That lush, fertile consistency I loved as a child is known in American parlance as slime.  Even okra’s defenders have internalized the widely held notion that okra, if uncontrolled, is disgusting. Midway through chiding those who find okra’s texture unpleasant, food writer James Villas, a North Carolina native, adds parenthetically, “to be truthful, okra overcooked to a gummy, mushy mess is appalling.” One smart and uninhibited food critic, no stranger to okra, told me he avoids the West African okra stews available in his city because they resemble “green snot.” Cookbooks that include okra usually acknowledge that the vegetable is “slimy”—conceding the terms of engagement by accepting the language of the enemy—and make certain to offer okra selection and preparation tips to help defeat the ooze.

To most okra-eating cultures, to defeat the ooze is to defeat the point. In West Africa, Brazil, and the Arab world, okra’s consistency serves precisely to bind the stew, often the thicker the better. In the United States, we take pains to achieve the opposite. Our gumbos, first cousins to these stews (the French African word for okra is gombo), have grown timid and thin, when we have not driven okra out of them altogether. We pickle okra to serve as a snack or offbeat cocktail garnish. And to the bafflement and consternation of okra eaters everywhere, our most common preparation by far involves dredging okra slices in cornmeal and deep-frying the texture out of them, leaving no more than a hint of moistness entombed in a crunchy sarcophagus.

Disclosure: I love fried okra. Yet still it worries me. For America’s compulsive detexturing of okra goes beyond mere idiosyncrasy, some kind of stubborn gastronomic isolationism. We stigmatize okra. But still we eat it.

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The story begins with commerce and conquest. As the era of European expansion dawned, okra’s domain reached from the pod’s probable cradle in the upper Nile valley eastward to India and westward through the African continent. Okra may not have crossed the Atlantic in the form of seeds woven into slaves’ hair, as one fanciful theory holds, but its arrival and adoption in the New World are closely associated with the slave trade and the plantation economy. Okra first reached the Caribbean and Brazil, entering North America in the early eighteenth century through Charleston and New Orleans.

Across the colonial world, it seems okra gained few white adherents. The culinary historian Karen Hess cites the observation by an English writer in colonial Bengal that “the pods, on account of their slimy nature, are not generally in favor with Europeans.” Conversely, as a writer in the American colonies noted of okra stew: “This dish is reckoned a dainty by some people and especially by the negroes.” Okra’s utter failure to penetrate the French palate suggests that culinary encounters in colonial Africa produced similar results. A food of slaves and natives, okra belonged to the Other.

In the nineteenth century, okra in America had a chance to cross over in the form of the Creole soups that highborn Southern ladies embraced. Collections such as The Virginia Housewife (1824) by Mary Randolph, Jefferson’s daughter, and Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1877) by Mary Cabell Tyree, Patrick Henry’s granddaughter, featured soup recipes that paired the pod with oysters or poultry. Perhaps this reflected the cultural influence of Charleston and New Orleans, gumbo’s dual papacy. Perhaps the encounter of black cookery and white taste in the kitchens of thewealthy achieved a sweet spot, fleetingly.

But the twentieth century found okra on the defensive, threatened variously by racial and regional prejudice, the rise of deep-frying, and taste trends that tended by mid-century toward the homogenous and bland. In 1949, the Principal Horticulturist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Victor R. Boswell, assessed that “okra alone is generally considered too ‘gooey,’ or mucilaginous, to suit American tastes.” Of course, texture-friendly okra dishes didn’t disappear. Braving the cultural edicts, grandmothers throughout the South—blacks as well as poor, rural whites—welcomed their visiting broods with lush preparations of okra stewed with tomatoes, corn, or field peas. Yet the machinery of tastemaking was in motion, and okra was on the wrong side of history.

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Okra’s bad rap put avid okra-eaters in an uncomfortable position. As theorists of colonial psychology such as Albert Memmi and Frantz Fanon pointed out from their studies of French Algeria, the Caribbean, and other regions in the 1950s, the disgust of the powerful is a perversely effective instrument with which to dominate the weak.

“Having first eaten couscous with curiosity,” Memmi writes of the colonizer, “he now tastes it from time to time out of politeness and finds that ‘it’s filling, it’s degrading and it’s not nourishing.’ … He is tortured by that odor of old mutton fat which stinks up so many of the houses.” In response to the colonizer’s disgust, the colonized suffers “a complex of feelings ranging from shame to self-hate…. People have told the colonized that his music is like the mewing of cats, and his painting like sugar syrup. He repeats that his music is vulgar and his painting disgusting.” The same goes for food: the dishes the colonizer rudely rejected turn into sources of shame.

Earlier, W. E. B. Du Bois had provided the classic phrasing of this historical predicament as it applied to black Americans. “Double consciousness,” as Du Bois called it, entailed “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” The rejection of such items of “Negro” food as okra, chitlins, and anything else found to be too redolent and unruly for proper tastes could only produce conflicted feelings. (In this respect, the “slime” of okra and the “funk” of black music were kindred concepts, though only the latter succeeded in crossing over.)

No surprise, then, that okra’s main propagation into white America occurred among rural folks instead of highbrow urban society. Nor that poor families, both black and white, often shed okra as they rose in class status or moved to the city. An elderly white woman I know in Arkansas enjoys steamed okra that she prepares in her pressure cooker, the oozier the better. But her daughter, the urban civil servant, won’t go near the stuff. “We ate everything my mother grew up with—except okra and liver,” an African American professor in her fifties told me. “I don’t know why.”

Has anything changed? Meandering across the South on a series of okra pilgrimages, I found that okra’s marginalization runs deep. One measure of the pod’s awkward status is how rarely it appears in public at white tablecloth establishments. It is far more the stuff of steam tables and cafeteria lines. Niki’s West in Birmingham, the cavernous Greek-owned institution where the entire Magic City seems to take its lunch break, boasts three different okra preparations available daily—steamed, stewed, and fried. As for okra gumbo, it can be hard to locate outside its ancestral habitats of New Orleans and Charleston, and even there on some days it can prove elusive.

Meanwhile fried okra still rules the roost. Some enthusiasts are only dimly aware of the range of alternative preparations that exist. “I love that stuff—love it pickled and fried!” exclaimed a white Southern friend when I asked his opinion of okra. Others will not budge on taste. The African-American okra connoisseur and culinary authority Jessica Harris tells of receiving this letter from a grateful white reader: “I didn’t know how many foods came from Africa and I appreciate that. Life without black-eyed peas and okra (only fried) would not be so good.”

I found a similar awkwardness afflicting new attempts to use okra as a symbol of community spirit and pride. Attending the yearly Okrafest in Checotah, Oklahoma—a truck-stop town of four thousand a couple of hours from the Arkansas line—I found a thoroughly enjoyable town fair, but with respect to okra far more camp than cuisine. Alongside the requisite country music, dunk tank, and muscle cars, the fair featured okra races, a pickled okra eating contest, and a children’s pageant that ended in the coronation of a surly little okra king and cutie-pie okra queen.But when I inquired about the fair’s origins, the organizers told me they’d picked okra as the theme less because it was locally grown—though it was—than for the novelty value. Accordingly, the cook-off was not quite the gastronomic treasure trove I had hoped for. Instead, the dishes on offer had been concocted (I think) tongue firmly in cheek. They included “okra kraut salad,” an okra casserole that resembled a mutant lasagna, and a chunky brown substance I believe was called “okra cowboy cups” that looked like chili gone badly awry and tasted worse. (Before leaving town I also sampled a batch of okra chip cookies.)

The humorous deployment of okra as a symbol can’t erase some of the pod’s more complicated layers of meaning. The Fighting
Okra is the unofficial mascot of Delta State University, in Cleveland, Mississippi. Paraphernalia for sale depict a pugnacious cartoon okra wearing red boxing gloves. According to school lore, the rogue was selected in part on the strength of being “green, and southern, and ugly,” which suggests some measure of identity ambivalence. My unscientific poll of students’ opinions about their mascot was predictably divided. And perhaps it was the effect on a visitor of the stark, stratified Delta, or perhaps it was the slogan imprinted on the school T-shirts—NO MUMBO JUMBO, JUST GOOD GUMBO—but I could not help but detect a whiff of racial undertone that left me ill at ease, grasping to find the line between self-deprecatory regional humor and something more subtle and sinister.

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Ntozake Shange, the African-American playwright, poet, and novelist with South Carolina roots, writes this:

I love okra and my soul is shaken every time I see someone turn her head in disgust, hang his head down like someone’s done something to be ashamed of because we’re havin’ okra for supper. I do not understand this. I refuse to allow our own people to reject an Africanism that is not inanimate or residual. Okra is one of our living ties to the motherland. In celebration I might make me a parade or an Okra Day/Are You Black or Not?

A few lines later she adds: “I think we should free the okra, the way we freed the watermelon.”

The revival of unalloyed okra pride is squarely a black project. In an essay entitled “Soul Food” (1962), Amiri Baraka counted okra among a roster of foods that “ofays sel-dom get to peck.” The fact that many white folk do in fact “peck” okra is beside the point. The racial injuries that okra symbolizes predate by two centuries its regional injuries. As the scholar Doris Witt shows in a fascinating study called Black Hunger (1997), with the rise of black nationalism soul food’s claim to authenticity grew ever more inscrutable, knowable to “soul folks” alone. Okra also survived soul food’s first identity crisis, when the Black Muslims and nutrition advocates like Dick Gregory denounced the celebration of unhealthy foods, such as swine, that they felt contributed to oppression.

Better yet: For the past two decades, okra’s secular prophets have spread the good news that the pod is of African provenance. Once, as Vertamae Grosvenor testifies, “anything African was to be jettisoned into the Atlantic.… For my generation, it was a mark of shame to be like an African.” But since then, scholarship, travel, and immigration have begun to reveal the culinary wealth of the African diaspora and connections to the rest of the global South. Okra takes pride of place. As Jessica Harris writes, “Wherever okra’s green tip points, Africa has been.”

So is okra finally free? Not yet. Texture remains a barrier. The lushness of a sauce gombo from the Ivory Coast, for instance—okra sliced down to the vanishing point, cooked to a greenish ooze that stretches taut off the spoon, infused with pungent palm oil, surface freckled with seeds, cradling cubes of beef, sinews of smoked fish, and giant quarters of crab—is still an acquired taste to most American palates. But the value of okra that such a dish conveys is no longer as alien as before.

The thanks for that go to the culinary activists—but perhaps even more to immigration. Across the United States, immigrants have already helped make okra available year-round. Now, the cooks of sauce gombo—and those of moqueca from Bahia, calalou from Haiti, bamiya stew from Egypt, lemon-drenched baby okra from Turkey, bhindi from India, and more—are helping our own okra soups, stews, gumbos, and Limpin’ Susans to come out into the sunlight and discover the rambunctious global family from which they were so long estranged.