ode to okra

August 26: 

Most of the men were from home during Friday working hours. We will not talk of the beginning of the academic year, and its demands of much time away from the work of the farm. We at home tinkered with the small tractor — hoping its problem is not the starter — built the gate for the new pig sty, and brought up the smallest of the sliding poultry pens to the front yard.  Before installing the twenty-five two-week old pullets, we checked the weather forecast. Hurricane Irene has the population of the east coast skidding for cover, but we in eastern Ohio are looking at a forecast of moderating temperatures and no precipitation. A good time to move the chicks.

By nightfall the little birds, half of them a dark terra-cotta, half black and gold, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, are at home in the pen, and huddle under a heat lamp in a corner of the enclosed end to conserve body heat. If the pen were to become too cold they might easily pile up until the chicks on the bottom suffocated, so we are careful to check the lamp before bedtime to see that it is still on and doing its job. We scoop up the chicks who have failed to find their way inside and poke them through the door, then close it to keep them in until morning. We don’t think a coon or ‘possum will come up in the yard where the dogs sleep and disturb our baby poultry, but there’s no need to take chances.

A little more corn was ready, and we froze two and a half pounds, and a gallon of okra. Usually our food preservation is done in large quantities, but the late corn comes in in dribbles, and okra accumulates over two or three days before there is enough to eat or to process. In any case, every little bit added to what you’ve got is just a little bit more.

Have we spoken of okra? Perhaps not. People in the north, by which we mean, north of the Mason-Dixon line, don’t seem to eat okra. You don’t see it growing much around here. People sometimes ask us how it is to be cooked, and from the way they ask we suspect they have never tasted it.

“Is it ready to harvest when the spikes are ten inches long?” we were asked recently, and we winced and assured the lovely gardener that they were, probably more than ready.

“If you can’t easily cut it with a paring knife, it is beyond eating, and should be given to the pigs,” we tell her.

“The compost bin, then,” we concede.

Okra is an underappreciated vegetable and well worth cultivation by the home gardener — because of its value as haute cuisine, of course, but additionally because it is easy to grow, seems to have no pests –except when the cows get into the garden, – produces copiously, and goes right on setting pods until far into autumn. It is also very easy to put up, raw, merely by slicing and freezing; and okra pickled with plenty of garlic and hot peppers is an epicure’s delight.

A little research, which we will not do, would reveal into which food group it ought to be placed – is it a protein, a carbohydrate, a fat? – and at some point the food pundits will undoubtedly get around to building a fad around okra as an unsurpassed source of something absolutely essential you didn’t know you needed.

About twenty years ago a dear friend, a beautiful New York socialite, was looking for some new vegetable to diversify her already large and gourmet repertoire. She inquired of us, her hick Southern friends, as to the qualities of okra. “It’s great,” we assured her. “We love it. The garden wouldn’t be complete without it.” She put it on her shopping list.

Perhaps we neglected to instruct her as to its preparation. At our next meeting she got us in a corner and inquired what was the joke. “How could you recommend that nasty stuff? It looks and tastes like bug eyeballs in green slime!” Following the directions on the package of frozen okra she had bought at the store, our friend had boiled the vegetable. Plain. In water. Ugh. Eyeballs in slime would be just about right.

Another time we would be more specific.

Okra is good prepared a variety of ways, and the one most people seem to know is the deep-fried, battered okra one gets at restaurants known for their Kuntry Chahm. Good stuff, no doubt, but we aren’t fond of cleaning up after a deep-fying episode, and when we fry okra we follow the recipe given us by our beloved Mom D.:

Slice your okra into a big bowl. (Let us say four cups of sliced okra as a basic unit.)

Add some flour. (We use about a half cup flour to four cups okra.) Stir.

Add an egg. Stir again.

Now add about a cup of cornmeal and whatever seasoning you like – we use salt, pepper, and a proprietary creole seasoning which we will name if they pay us to advertise for them. Stir again.

At this point what you have in your bowl will look like a mess. Okra is mucilaginous, which is a nice word for “slimy”, and if you have stirred vigorously you will now have a bowlful of pointy green things stringy with egg and flour and cornmeal. Perfect.

Now heat a big castiron skillet and put about three tablespoons of bacon grease in the bottom. If you don’t save bacon grease, what are you thinking? Get a crock for the back of the stove and save every drop of bacon grease you render. Okay, use three tablespoons of whatever fat you think is good – lard, olive oil, — shortening, even, if you want to die young – and get it nice and hot. Dump in your okra. Scrape the bowl out good, all the dough will fry up delicious. Now give it about five minutes, listening and smelling to make sure your temperature is high enough but not too high, and then stir and turn the okra with a metal spatula. The okra will not be in discrete slices, like the deep-fried stuff you get at restaurants, but will be clumped up like fritters. Don’t worry about that. As they cook, the slices regain their own independent lives, and if they don’t, you don’t care because they will taste the same and they will be delicious. Just fry your okra for about fifteen minutes, stirring once in a while so the bottom pieces don’t burn. It’s done when the okra is no longer really crunchy, and it loses its bright green color. Maybe it’ll take twenty minutes.

This isn’t a fussy vegetable.

Another time we will speak of gumbo . . .

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