The Okra That Unites Us

In three-going-on-four decades of writing about, talking about, cooking and serving food, there’s only one ingredient that’s been regularly denigrated by people in my presence as being “slimy.” And the fact that it’s an essential ingredient for my hometown of New Orleans, my home state of Louisiana and my home region of the South doesn’t seem to stop anybody.

Yes, of course. I do mean okra.

The root of the problem some people have with these otherwise attractive green pods is, you might say, part of their charm. They provide, after all, a powerful thickening agent that makes them perfect for soups and stews, beginning and ending with Louisiana’s iconic gumbo. Even the name helps tell the story, since versions of the word “gumbo” mean okra in more than one West African tribal language.

Still, when you show someone the bright, shimmering clear strands that twirl outward like spider webs from okra as it cooks, often as not the person will tell you “No thanks.” This simply isn’t something our foods typically do. Okra is no typical food.

Historians tell us that okra originated – if such a thing can be established with certainty about anything – in the part of Africa that today includes Ethiopia, Eritrea and the eastern, higher part of the Sudan. The vegetable found an early following among the Egyptians living in the fertile valley of the Nile. It’s the Bantu tribe that gets credit for spreading okra seeds throughout western and central Africa when they migrated out of Egypt around 2000 BC.

Some exporting beyond the oceans occurred among those who came to Africa seeking monetary or spiritual enrichment, or some combination of both, a group that included missionaries, explorers, fame-seekers and profiteering colonizers. Before long, moving among various countries’ overseas colonies, okra had become a staple in two places with a lot of mouths to feed: India and China. Still, the vegetable’s greatest fame would come via slaves taken from West Africa to the New World by way of the Caribbean islands.

There are countless sad stories about slavery and okra, many by now reduced to visual images. There were slaves dragged from their villages, grabbing up okra seeds in hopes of planting them wherever they ended up. There were slaves who made the horrific voyage with okra seeds hidden in their ears, ready to grow around the huts that cropped up in the slave quarters of Caribbean great houses and Deep South plantations. No place, apparently, proved better for growing okra than French Louisiana, where slaves not only picked cotton and cut sugarcane but did the hard work of harvesting rice. Okra and rice, in Louisiana, would never be far apart.

In Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson described himself as a “very old man but a very young gardener,” the nation’s third president was especially proud of the okra he grew around Monticello. Though he had traveled through France and Italy in his younger years, he’d no more been to Africa than to any part of the Louisiana he purchased. He no doubt first learned about okra from his slaves.

There is one bright story that comes down to us, that of slaves in the New World from many different African tribes who spoke many different tribal languages. Long before soul food restaurants in New York’s Harlem and Chicago’s South Side would unite black and white, at least long enough to enjoy downhome flavors, okra helped slaves feel at home among dark-skinned men, women and children they never would have even met in their former lives.

Okra is precisely that to us today. For all who live in the South, or who remember their families living in the South, it has a unique way of binding people together.

NEW ORLEANS SHRIMP, OKRA & TOMATOES

Though okra lends its African name to gumbo in Louisiana, there are many okra recipes all across the Deep South. From fried to stewed, okra is a favorite in most Southern households. Seldom, however, is a recipe truer than this one to the vegetable’s origins in Africa and its treacherous crossing to this country as part of slavery’s complex legacy.   

1 1/4 pounds large uncooked shrimp, peeled, deveined

3 teaspoons Creole/Cajun seasoning, divided

6 slices smoked bacon, chopped

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups frozen cut okra (from 16-ounce package), thawed

1 cup Fischer & Wieser’s Salsa a la Charra

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes

1 8-ounce bottle clam juice

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

2 green onions, chopped

2 cups cooked white rice

Toss shrimp and 1 1/2 teaspoons of seasoning in medium bowl to coat. Cook bacon in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until crisp and brown. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towel to drain. Add flour to drippings in skillet. Stir constantly until roux is very dark brown, about 5 minutes. Add okra, salsa and cherry tomatoes. Stir in remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons seasoning. Cook 1 minute. Add clam juice and allspice. Boil until sauce is thick, stirring often, about 3 minutes. Add shrimp. Cook shrimp until just opaque in center, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix in chopped green onions, parsley and cooked bacon. Serve over rice. Serves 4.

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