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Archive for Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Okra fan knows she’s a rare breed

May 24, 2006

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When I planted okra last week, I felt a couple of people with me in spirit.

Please don't think that I've gone spooky on you, but many gardeners feel they have company when they toil in their gardens. I can't count the number of folks who have told me that as they work, they think constantly of parents, grandparents and others who gardened before them, and that the labor of gardening is a kind of communion with those who have shared their passion for growing food.

And so it was that as I sowed my okra seeds last week, I thought of a woman I met about a month ago. She waited until others had left to talk to me one-on-one about her vegetable garden.

"You know," she said, lowering her voice just slightly, "I grow okra."

This admission wasn't quite on the order of "You know, I'm an escaped convict," or "You know, I have a dreaded and communicable disease," but in this part of the country, north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where okra is considered funny foreign food, people who grow it and claim to like it are suspect.

In that brief okra confession, she and I bonded just as sure as if we had been two lodge members trading a secret handshake.

The other person I thought of while I was planting my okra seeds was Dan Lambert, soon to become my former boss. Next month he will retire as president of Baker University, which will end years of his good-natured ribbing about my love of okra and his intense dislike of same.

If there were a place on Earth where okra had been outlawed, the Lamberts would probably make their retirement home there.

Dan's barbs, which arrived in personal notes or jokes from the podium at meetings with the faculty, always followed a column in which I defended okra from its detractors, usually people who object to the slime inside the okra pod. I have maintained for years that such critics value form over substance.

Moreover, the slime, which provides a natural thickener in gumbo, cooks down quickly, leaving only the delicious flavor for us to enjoy. Personally, I like okra best in a stir fry with onion and garlic, and topped with diced tomato. It's an emblematic summer meal.

The other strike against okra in the North is that fresh okra that is actually fresh is hard to find. Unless we grow our own or go to a farmers market, we are left with the stale and brown-around-the-edges okra pods that languish in supermarket produce departments. Or we can buy it frozen. Yuck.

The most famous case of vegetable aversion was, of course, George H.W. Bush's public bashing of broccoli. While I have no idea what he might have thought of okra, it's a near certainty that he would have gobbled up a steaming plateful at any campaign stop in the South.

As it happens, I love growing okra and I would plant it even if I were of the ilk who disliked it. Okra, which is a relative of the hibiscus, has gorgeous blooms. In fact, I often put extra seed in my flower bed.

One final okra note: Be sure to soak your seeds for several hours before you plant. The hard shells make germination difficult.

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