End of the Line

Mad About Okra

A few words in defense of a very Southern staple

Illustration: Barry Blitt

The last time the rock-and-roll band of authors known as the Rock Bottom Remainders got together, this past June in Los Angeles, I learned that my friend and bandmate Stephen King is horrified by okra. Someone—not me, maybe Greg Iles, the only other Southern member of the band—happened to bring up okra, in passing, you know, as one will. And Steve reacted as another person might to a vengeful psychokinetic wallflower, or a runaway rabid St. Bernard, or an insanely jealous Plymouth Fury: “Nooo,” he said. “I don’t want okra. No okra. No.”

Not an unusual response, among people who didn’t grow up with okra, also among quite a few who did. Even the definition in the 
Oxford English Dictionary sounds unsettling: “a five-sided ‘pod’ (actually a capsule), harvested when immature and mucilaginous…. Also called…lady’s fingers.”

To me, there is nothing much more savory than cross sections of okra dusted with cornmeal and crispy-fried, but I like okra boiled, too—with pepper sauce or all by itself in its own juice, lying there all nice and loose. My father knew a man who ate so much okra he couldn’t keep his socks up. Jerry Clower said the longest dogfight he ever saw was over okra. At his mama’s behest, Jerry dumped a pot full of boiled-down leftover okra into the dog pen. “A big old hound run up there, fsllppllp and it just went down so fast, he thought the other dog got it and jumped on him. Them dogs fought the whole rest of the evening and didn’t but one dog know what they was fighting over.”

Okay, okra is slick. But can’t we appreciate slick? Ernie K-Doe, according to Ben Sandmel’s new biography of the singer of “Mother-in-Law,” was proud to say, “I’m so slick, grease gotta come ask me how to be greasy!” In GQ recently, a rapper named 2Chainz was quoted as observing that “Atlanta people always say slick when we really mean it: ‘It’s slick hot outside.’”

“Okra gets a bad rap,” says Poppy Tooker, author of the Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook, on YouTube, where she demonstrates “how to keep okra from getting slimy.” (Fry it in “hot-hot” oil.) Someone from the Philippines has posted a comment: “If you don’t want your ‘okra’ to be slimy then go pick another vegetable because it is made THAT way.”

Also on YouTube, Sarah Sawadogo—slick hot in a little black off-the-shoulder dress and three strands of pearls—shows us “how to cook okra the most delicious way.” If the gumbo she stirs up, involving octopus, looks a little questionable, she sells it by tasting it so well, mmmmm, and then saying, “I see my grandmother!” Comments range from “I am from louisiana i love okra its good 4 da body and yours look delicious” to “Most delicious wayyyy are you crazy!!!! look whoever taught you to cook Okra soup this way have wrong you big time miss ladie. NONSENCE!!!” And then of course another commenter has to blurt out “DIRTY NASTY STANKIN”— which bears out what another member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, Matt Groening, remarked when we were all in Los Angeles: “Never read online comments, because about the fifth one down will make you hate all humans.”

But okra runs deeper than commentary. In Ghana, okra is not only a dietary staple but essential in other ways. There’s a reggae-hop band called Okra and a singer called Okra Tom Dawidi, and the word for a mess of okra is nkruma. The name of Ghana’s founder is Kwame Nkrumah. Ghana’s dominant ethnic group is the Akan people. They believe, according to the Encyclopedia of African and African-American Religions, that one of the three major spiritual components of a person is “the immaterial divine spark from God that is immortal and so vital that life cannot be sustained without it,” and the word for that “soul from God” is okra. “If a person is faced with intense disgrace or attacks by evil, the okra is believed to react by temporarily leaving the person…. In such a situation certain rituals are required in order to restore the okra…” I like the notion of, say, John Edwards having to woo his okra back. I don’t like thinking of the soul as slimy. But slick, yeah.