A summer benediction for under-prized Southern yumminess is on my mind. In other lands, the subject is referred to as ladies’ fingers.
Memories materialize for me by way of aerial view. With this one, I’m as clear as the glass panes centered between the built-in hutches in my Yazoo grandparents’ breakfast room.
The ceiling appears to be terrifyingly remote, but then my miniature focus comes down to the black and white checked linoleum floor surrounding my Keds sneakers. Straight ahead of me is a Fire King bowl filled to the brim with boiled okra, tough tops and all.
A few of my cousins are present. It is hot damn time for lunch in the Mississippi Delta. C.M. and Margaret are looming as heads of the small table. My grandparents have been up since 4:00 a.m., a habit they’ve maintained since retiring from the hotel management biz.
Even with this deplorable presentation, okra is my favorite vegetable. From a distance, I’m not sure whether it’s the way my grandfather enlisted my help to butter and salt the bubbling pot of fresh pods, the praise I received for consuming them or simply love at first slimy bite.
My grandfather C.M. was a no muss, no fuss cook. He came from the Southern Illinois, country-cooking, boil it to death, alma mater. I dare say that many of you have been deprived by such culinary techniques.
So yes, love at first slimy bite. I was always drawn to the slipping action. Raw oysters are also high on my list. From a current perspective though, it all makes sense. My esophagus is compromised, but hey pardon me, I’m oversharing.
Here is the truth of the matter. The only okra dish that HAS made it into the lexicon of beloved southern cooking is fried, but to my purist mindset, frozen-fried okra doesn’t count. And all too often, some sort of fried presentation is usurping our palates as the done delicacy.
I can hear the protests. But did you ever hear about chicken and waffles or hot chicken until someone from another part of the chef-world claimed them Southern? Fried okra from a bag OR battered and deep fried is in the same category of things that should never have wiggled their way into deep South heritage.
Favored Southern storyteller Rick Bragg has documented his mother’s fried okra in Best Cook in the World, and I agree with her. She insists that small slices of okra should be rolled in cornmeal and fried in a cast iron skillet with bacon grease until they are dark green. This is the fried okra that I relish.
My daughters would chirp in here to tell you that during summertime when growing up, one of the few dishes on repeat was stewed okra and tomatoes. Unbeatably divine. Same theory, thank you, Rick Bragg’s mother. I nurtured that combo in an iron skillet with bacon grease, olive oil or butter, salt and pepper with a smidge of sugar.
Until I depart for happy hunting grounds, I’ll campaign for this dish, a best version of fast food because as it turns saucy, you’ll get anxious for that side of rice. A one pot wonder.
Here’s another intriguing thing about okra which makes me respect them more. I did some personal research within my artillery of cookbooks – 220 volumes to date. Please don’t judge; I’m a home cook with librarian tendencies.
What I found was startling. Very few cookbooks, mostly Southern in nature, provide a way to serve okra. Clearly we are just waking up to the culinary heritage that we owe to the African American story. The seeds were brought here from West Africa and Ethiopia. The plant itself is the enchantment. Heads up in advance if you choose to augment your Southern tribal call.
In preparation for the next growing season, find a spot in your yard and become a legit Southerner. Okra grows from seed. No big whoop. Document it with your people as an experiment. Its beauty is stunning. You’ll call the neighbors over to see it in action, but watch out. Once they get going, this plant will blow your mind in its overnight-call for harvest.
The plants love heat. They are low maintenance. My favorite attribute besides its gorgeous flower is the fact that they are not favorites of the freeloading groundhog family which can be a pestilence to all experimental backyard farmers.
Please know that I haven’t just brought you here to consider your spring landscape or even remind you to make a final trip for okra to the farmers market. With a song in my heart, I sanction recipes of okra-otherness to expand your palate.
Among my belabored cookbook shelves sits a prize which has awaited this moment. My Jackson/Oxford, Mississippi sister-in-law holds forth as a judge and unrivaled good company. Her name is Virginia Wilson Mounger, and she is an exquisite gift giver.
Not long ago, she rang my bell with a humdinger of a “happy.” A cookbook entitled Some Favorite Southern Recipes of The Duchess of Windsor arrived with an attached note written in her endearing hand – “It belonged to my great Aunt Vannie who lived her entire life in Manhattan and family lore is that she actually knew the Duchess. She certainly came a long way from Paris/Tula, Mississippi!”
I immediately thumbed my way to the slim collection’s index and researched okra. Voila, on page 81. There it be – MY new Southern Favorite, a rice dish starring okra.
Maybe your age is such that you missed the installment where the King of England, Edward VIII, gave up the throne for the love of an American socialite, Wallace Simpson (later The Duchess of Windsor). I like to believe that, in part, The Duchess’s okra dish wove the spell that freeway-ed the king into abdication of his legacy to change the world.
I give you The Duchess’s heretofore unknown Okra Pilau. And you’re welcome. Don’t tell me that you aren’t enchanted by a side of ladies’ fingers.
4 slices of bacon
1 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon green pepper, chopped
2 cups tomatoes, chopped (I was taught to peel tomatoes)
2 cups okra, thinly sliced
salt and pepper
2 cups cooked rice
Dice bacon and saute in an iron skillet until golden brown.
Lift bacon out and fry onion and bell pepper until browned.
Add tomatoes and okra and let them cook down.
Season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile cook the rice the traditional way or use a rice cooker.
Mix the rice into the skillet with tomatoes and okra.
Mix bacon bits in at the last minute.