Published in the Rains County Leader on September 26, 2017:
Okra had no place in our home when I was a kid. I don’t know if it was because nobody liked it or because it didn’t come in a can. Mom and Dad both worked long hours, and I began cooking dinner for the family when I was eleven, so there wasn’t much time or skill for preparing fresh veggies.
Okra wasn’t one of those dishes that made a regular appearance at church or family potlucks either. Fried okra doesn’t travel well or keep well like fried chicken, and boiled okra is – well, it’s boiled okra.
Somewhere along the line, though, I tried fried okra, and I really like it. Now, any time I eat at a home-cooking style restaurant, the first thing I look for in the list of side dishes is fried okra.
When we moved to Emory in 2011, one of the pleasant surprises was that everyone here grows okra – and they are very generous with it. Our first year, we were too busy repairing the house and reclaiming the yard from briars and poison ivy to become involved in any of the produce exchanges, but by the second year, we had made friends with a neighbor who had a large garden with two long rows of okra. Being a single man, he didn’t use nearly as much as he grew, so he gave a lot of it away at the senior center. A few weeks into the okra season, he told me and another neighbor or two that he was tired of picking okra but that if we wanted, we were welcome to come pick our own. That’s when I began my okra education.
For one thing, I learned that gloves are a good idea during the harvest. Okra doesn’t have visible thorns, but there is something about those fuzzy little pods that stings like crazy by the time you’ve worked a row or two. I also learned that a little okra goes a long way. A dozen medium-sized pods, when fried up, made enough for two meals for David and me. Because of that lesson, I quickly learned alternate ways to cook okra, pickle it, and freeze it. It was a fun but busy summer, but I developed a greater appreciation for the work that was required in days gone by to provide food for a family when there were no supermarkets nearby.
For the next two or three years, I tried growing my own, but apparently okra is not one of my gifts. Fortunately, my neighbors continued to plant and give away, so we didn’t do without. In the interim, I learned that, after a couple of years, my homemade okra pickles are technically still edible, but they are a bit on the mushy side. I also learned that, when whole pods are frozen and thawed, they are a lot on the mushy side. Now when I have an abundance, I cut it and bread it. Then, I dry it in a warm oven for a few minutes before freezing it. When I’m ready to cook it, it goes straight into the hot oil and comes out perfectly.
This year, I’ve added another fact or two to my okra education. When some of our traveling friends left on a late season vacation, their garden was still producing. True to the generous spirit of the area, they told me to take whatever I wanted while they were gone. I’ve scavenged enough purple hull peas for a meal or two, I’ve picked enough figs for a small batch of preserves, and I’ve harvested lots of okra. I haven’t used nearly as much as I harvested, though, because it seems that about half of the late season okra is crispy or downright hard as a rock, even the small ones that are usually soft. I’m not discouraged, though. I pick it all, and what I can’t use ends up on the compost pile for the enjoyment of the local wildlife.
Sometimes, after I have spent most of a day picking and processing produce, I understand why people who have spent their lives in the country prefer to buy their veggies from a roadside stand or the local market. In the spring when I’m faced with the task of tilling and prepping my own plot, I often lack the motivation and energy to pursue a garden. Still, when I’m given the chance to experience the miracle of God’s provision up close and personal, I have trouble passing it up. I may be a city girl on the outside, but there’s a country girl in there somewhere who, along with my inner child, likes to come out once in a while and play in the dirt.