If there were a contest for which vegetable is "most likely to bury you," okra would win. The first time I grew it, I planted two long rows, thinking I'd get maybe enough for three or four messes of okra
"Pocahontas," Daddy cautioned me, "that's enough okra for a city. "
Its subtle flavor can be compared to eggplant, though the texture is somewhat unusual. The word okra comes from the West African nkruma and was in use in the United States by the late 1700s. Grown in tropical and warm temperate climates, it is in the same family as the hibiscus and cotton plants. It’s captivating to read that in some regions of the world the ripe seeds are sometimes roasted and ground as a substitute for coffee.
The soul of the South is from times that some want to forget and yet every day there are things that takes me back to that past. As one cook writes, “Okra came from Africa. Watermelons came from Africa. Black-eyed peas and Turnips came from Africa. This is where the soul in soul food comes from.” It’s also sad to learn that this may be how my ancestors who owned slaves probably got this recipe. So I remember them in my heart and hope that generations of slaves are honored every time I cook what they cooked in tribute to the honest truth about spirit of the Deep South.
Where do you worship?
It didn’t really begin to sink in until that spring. Here it was, early May and we were stationed at Dobbins AFB near Marietta. There had been the previous summer in Texas at my grandparent’s place. Being a military dependent made it home and roots by proxy. A place were men rose before sunup and ate colossal breakfasts of fresh sausage and eggs piled high with grits and gravy that Grandma and her daughters prepared. We would gather around a large oak table and Grandpa would read a chapter from the Bible followed by a prayer that always began with, “Bless this food for the use of my body that it may help us to complete our necessary tasks and be better able to work to serve others.” Sometimes the chapter was long which drew out the anticipation and heightened the pleasure of the morning feast.
Because we lived in so many far away places and it was hard to know where and when we would be transferred next. Our visits to Dad’s home always seem to become an impromptu family reunion. So the aim was to get all the chores that could be done early to leave time for visiting. My part in the melee of family madness was to try to help with the cooking and part of my pre dawn chores was to gather vegetables in a large metal colander from the garden south of the house. No one ever noticed the saltshaker stashed in my front pocket. I crept quietly out the screen door of the kitchen into the predawn moisture and squeezed between the corner of the white clapboard of the house and limestone brick of the smokehouse. This was where hams and other meats were hung and smoke cured so they could be stored in the cellar for winter meals. I did this to avoid raising a ruckus in chicken house lest one of my male cousins would show up excitedly with a shotgun thinking that maybe there was a fox in there.
The white wooden gate with its heavy chain and heavy gear from a long ago worn out combine to provide weight was hard to open. Gravity would scrap it shut hard enough that the gritty Texas dirt raked up off of the ground and fling the wet dew off of the weeds so both clung to my bare legs. Rowdy the yard dog would follow me into Grandma’s garden. He kept me company while I yanked crimson red tomatoes from stubborn verdant vine. The tomatoes caressed the palm of my hands with the warmth of summer kindness and the light earthy smell overwhelmed me with temptation. Biting off a piece the skin revealed juicy red sections brimming with flavor. Onto this the salt would be sprinkled along with the blessing God’s food for the use of my body.
Rabbits would spring from thin air
I am convinced that I have witnessed dogs praying to whatever gods dogs entreat with soundless hopes that are surely as earnest as my own. If dogs do call upon the Great Dog God in the Sky, it may be that they pray as I do, for what I yearn for, for what I require, and for answers to circumstances they can neither explain-- nor escape. To step into a dog's mind involves stepping into his paws, and watching the world through his eyes.
Not all dog prayers are serious ones. To understand Rowdy’s prayers, I watched for what lit his entire being with joy. His prayers were plain ones, simple to understand and he prayed frequently and gleefully and as far as I could tell he prayed for rabbits to sneak up on. Ever watchful, he waited for his opportunity to slink off through the pole beans, take flight over the garden fence bounding through a covey of startled doves. Sometimes he wouldn’t return until long after breakfast. I hoped he didn't run into any more skunks.
The tomatoes were gone and the Texas sun glinted off mother-of-pearl snaps of an old shirt that hung over the wire goat catcher along with a pair of gloves. Okra is prickly and irritated my skin, I would be picking a lot for the huge crowd arriving for dinner. So I donned the uniform and cut the humidity and heat loving okra off of their tall bushy stalks. Planted on ridges in heavy soils for good drainage, the only rule for okra is to plant it when the soil is really warm -- say, May. It has to be picked every other day to get unblemished ones. The right size pods were four inches and under. When the Spanish Moore visited Egypt in 1216 one of them wrote about the plant in detail, it was farmed by the Egyptians, and said, “that the pods when young and tender were eaten with meal.” They must have known that getting okra into children is a challenging matter too. Since then all mothers have known how to cook it by slicing the pods, dipping the pieces in cornmeal and frying them. It is as addictive as popcorn. I couldn’t wait my turn to stand on a stool set far enough aways to avoid spatters and watch while Grandma added just enough corn meal and fat before sliding it into her iron skillet.
Dishing up some Southern comfort
Generally speaking a mess of okra is equivalent to a pound or about two handfuls. It doesn't really take much time to make. After it's been washed stemmed Grandma boiled it in salted water for about five minutes then drained and allowed it to dry. After that it was ready to be sliced into ½ inch cross sections.
While the okra was drying she set out two cups of cornmeal. Then take two slightly beaten eggs and add one to two tablespoons of water. To get the cornmeal to stick to the okra she dipped it in the prepared egg and water mixture, then rolled it in cornmeal. She fried it up quickly in deep, sizzling fat. Usually bacon grease or lard. One of my aunts would slice up three fresh tomatoes, and when they were bubbling hot, tossed in the okra. Both gave the mixture one quick stir, counted to 30, and then drained it on paper towels. Some people liked it burnt to a crisp, but the key ingredient is to serve it hot!
Realizing the sanctity of these treasures
In relationships with animals, there are additional mysteries of other idioms and ways of life quite unlike my own. My first taste of Southern food came from the best cooks in the South. They were heaped upon mouth pleasing platters of catfish, purple hull peas and Oconee apple pie. For sure fried okra is ambrosia from the pod. Oh goodness, did we eat. And eat. Rowdy always showed up for scrapes that were tossed out the door into the yard after every meal. While the disparity between nature and I both charms and attracts, it also hands out things that make difficult the whole affair. I am quite confident that every dog on earth goes to his grave mystified by certain human behaviors. Rowdy showed up later that morning communicating in variations on a theme of ears and tail. This creature that delighted in rolling in decomposing things muttered unintelligibly under a dark breath in sinister rumbles as if displeased. I looked at him and he looked back. As I dropped my gaze there was a sense that a strange dog from within was trying to speak to me was unshakable. Equally unwavering was the distressing feeling that I kept failing to understand what he had to say. We avoided each other from that day until we left.
Losing my religion
A week later Dad got a phone call. Rowdy had been put down because it was pretty sure he had contracted rabies and for two weeks I endured daily vaccinations in my abdomen as a preventative measure. Pushing the images of Grandpa shooting and burying Rowdy down by creek were impossible. Rowdy and been right on both counts. But what we longed for was not necessarily what we got, at least not without having to learn some hard lessons along the way.
Before the “the most likely to bury me” garden could be harvested we were transferred to MacDill AFB. A friend wrote a few weeks later to say that the “city “ was enjoying my garden trying their best to keep up with the avalanche of okra. Some even collected the seeds of the mature pods to plant in their gardens the following years. Planting that garden helped me realize that Rowdy would never lie to me, that I had learned to trust that what he told me was his truth at that moment. Any bond is an intricate thing at best, leaping as it does from a junction of two lives, two sets of needs, points of view and uncertainties, two different prayers and accepting the world we shared. For some reason all that I needed to know was that a part of what had been Rowdy and me in the soils of that dark morning in Texas lingers in the red clay Georgia.
Thank you sneff for helping me find a place to tell this story.