South Carolinians love to fry it, pickle it, boil it, roast it, grill it, dry it, fritter it, steam it and fete it with an annual "strut." Of course, we're talking about okra, a vegetable beloved by Southerners for many reasons, not the least of which is its versatility. While it hails from faraway places, okra crossed the ocean centuries ago via the Atlantic slave trade and set its roots firmly in our food culture. It continues to hold a place of honor on supper plates across the state, where it is typically served up coated in cornmeal and fried to a crunchy, golden brown.
West Africa, South Asia and even Egypt have been proposed as possible origins for the okra plant. While no one knows for sure, its high heat and drought tolerance suggest someplace subtropical or tropical. In South Carolina, it is planted both in spring and summer for good okra eating all the way through autumn. The okra plant grows tall, producing hibiscus-like blooms (it is related to both hibiscus and cotton) and green pods (sometimes called "lady fingers") that are ready for picking when they are 2 to 3 inches long.
There are many varieties of okra, with one of the most popular being the Clemson Spineless, developed by Clemson University horticulturists for tenderness and easy picking. Lee, Annie Oakley II, Cajun Delight and Burgundy - characterized by lovely red pods - are other varietal favorites of Southern gardeners. Enjoying revived South Carolina notoriety is heirloom Bradford Family Okra, which, like the famous Bradford watermelon, has been grown on the family's Sumter farms for nearly 200 years. Called the "caviar of okra," these bright green, velvety pods filled with juicy, pearly seeds defy okra logic by becoming sweeter and more tender the larger they grow. Check Bradford Watermelon Company's Facebook page for availability updates.
Nutritionally speaking, okra is a gem that is beginning to receive widespread accolades for its health benefits. Low in fat (unless you fry it, of course!) and rich in fiber, okra pods are also a good source of vitamins C and K. Not only will eating okra keep you, ahem, regular, but it can help keep those cholesterol levels in check, too.
In Civil War times, desperate soldiers drank a caffeine-free, coffee substitute made from the roasted, dried seeds found in the pods - a practice not likely to evolve into a Starbuck's trend, though you never know. Some cooks dried the pods and ground them to a powder for seasoning and thickening dishes. Extracting oil from okra was another way to use it, as was drying the pods for later use. Dr. David Shields, food historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, said the Gullah Geechee enjoyed okra dishes all through the winter by using dried pods reconstituted in the soup pot. Some South Carolina chefs are bringing back these practices and showcasing okra's many uses. And - wait for it - okra oil is currently being studied as a possible biofuel. One day, you might just be filling the tank with a few gallons of okra seed oil!
But when it comes to the real reason Southerners love okra so much, it all boils down to ... well, its robust popularity can't be pinned down to any one thing. You can see all that love in action at the annual Okra Strut in Irmo, one of South Carolina's most anticipated fall festivals. Come eat your weight in fried okra, wash it down with sweet tea and wave goodbye to summer.
Albeit, okra is a vegetable people either love or hate. If you can't stand it, it's likely because of "mucilage," the sticky substance (or "slime," as some okra detesters call it) produced when the pods are cooked in liquid. But it's this very quality that makes okra an indispensable thickener in many Southern soups and stews. Perhaps the most famous example in these parts is okra soup, a tomato-based Gullah dish chock-full of okra and served over rice. New Orleans-style gumbo is another well-known recipe that relies upon plenty of chopped okra to create that signature stick-to-your-ribs heft. Curries also make a fine vehicle for showcasing okra, with the sliced pods soaking up the spicy goodness like little sponges.
But you don't have to get fancy to enjoy a dish of okra. Some aficionados love crunching on raw pods. And a good many South Carolinians prefer the simple pairing of okra with stewed tomatoes. Ladle that over a bowl of buttered white rice, grab a wedge of cornbread and dinner is served!