With Roots in Africa: Okra, a Veritable World Traveler

Okra at Monticello 2

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Although my father used to fry fresh okra, rolling it first in beaten egg and then coating it with crushed saltine crackers, he never grew it in the vast backyard gardens of my childhood.

So, quite by accident, I learned about the okra plant in an entirely different place.

Rigoberto and his cousin dug the garden patch, stirring up the Honduran earth with a rusted shovel and a hoe missing a screw, which made a loud squeak each time it hit the ground.  Once the plot measured as wide and long as the inside of a banana shipping container, the boys then sowed seeds as the sun glinted off the sweat rolling down their noses and collecting at the base of their throats.

I salivated at the thought of the red tomatoes and peppers, the sweet yellow corn and squash, the pinto beans and the papaya.

Incessant afternoon rains provided ample water and every day I checked the ground for signs of life. Small green shoots surfaced fast in the heat and the damp.

One day, as I walked through the rows of young plants, I noticed an odd plant, actually several rows of them. And I froze at the sight. What on earth were we doing here? Oh my goodness, it looked like we had dozens of marijuana plants on our hands!

But, after I caught my breath and looked more closely, I realized that okra plants look a lot like pot plants. Yes sir, they sure do.

Summer sped by and the plants flourished, and I learned something I wasn’t expecting to learn – okra flowers thrilled me. Resembling delicate morning glories, the yellows and purples and even pinks shone as beautiful as any hot-house hibiscus. And at the core of each one nestled a dark garnet ring, as rich in color as a king’s royal robes.

At the time, every week, I visited an elderly woman from Jamaica who lived on the other side of the small river dividing the United Fruit Company compound from the local village. She cooked conch soup for me one day, using some of the okra I’d brought her. And ever after that’s the way I cooked okra most of the time, in the gumbo-like stews heavily imprinted with Caribbean and African flavors.

Years later, I discovered the Margaret Holmes brand of canned tomatoes and okra, sitting on a shelf in my local Wal-Mart. I thought, “How terrific, now I can make gumbo a lot faster using this.”

And I do.

If you examine the Margaret Holmes Website or the labels of their products, you’ll see their company dates back to 1838, when family patriarch James McCann farmed 2000 acres – mostly cotton – in Effingham, South Carolina. Obviously, farming 2000 acres at that time required a lot of labor, provided by slaves.

 Margaret Holmes Okra and Tomatoes

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

McCann Farms acquired the Margaret Holmes label in 1954, by buying a canning operation started by Ed and Margaret Holmes in the 1930s on a nearby farm. Margaret, a “meticulous cook,” canned white acre peas. Today, the company cans/freezes many Southern vegetables such as beans, peaches, collard greens, tomatoes, okra, and peanuts. They contract with local farmers for a lot of their products, actually at least 60 percent.

You may also use canned tomatoes and okra, along with some onions and bacon, to make Limping Susan, a pilau-like cousin to the more widely known recipe using rice, Hoppin’ John. And Virginia’s famous Brunswick Stew traditionally called for okra.* Not to mention the myriad recipes found in countries ranging from Syria to India to the Philippines and Greece.

Pretty amazing, isn’t it, that a vegetable with origins in Ethiopia ended up all the way across the seemingly endless continent of Africa and the expanse of a virtually islandless ocean, to grace the pots of a new world.

Gumbo, from Charleston Receipts, p. 180:

1 quart okra
2 No. 2 cans tomatoes (5 cups)
3 slices bacon
2 large onions
Salt, pepper, and thyme to taste

Grind okra and onions coarsely in meat grinder [or food processor]. Cook bacon and remove from pan. Add okra and onions to bacon grease and cook until all juice is cooked out, then add tomatoes, salt, pepper, and thyme. Let this simmer or 3 or 4 hours, add a little water if necessary. When cooked, serve with rice with bacon crumbled on top. Shrimp or seafood of any kind may be added to make a seafood gumbo. The seafood should be added after the gumbo is finished. Serves 6. Mrs. Charles H. Burn (Nina McAdoo)

Okra and tomatoes bowl 1

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Click HERE for my previous, fact-laden post about okra!

*Karen Hess writes that Mary Randolph’s 1824 The Virginia House-wife contains the first published recipes – three – for okra, but I wonder if she checked any French or Spanish or Portuguese sources (she probably did). Hess, Karen. Okra in the Diaspora of Our South. In: Cornbread Nation 1, edited by John Egerton. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

© 2013 C. Bertelsen

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