An ode to the South’s quintessential veggie

By Nan Graham

Ladies Fingers, gumbo or okra . . . the plant has many names and even more uses. Our okra, like many things Southern, is regarded by some as inferior, an essentially unworthy vegetable. We Southerners never remark, as some do, that it is “slimy.” It’s the same as saying that Aunt Tillie’s nose twitches after her fourth bourbon and branch water. In these parts, we tend to ignore such aberrations and avert the eyes.

Okra is a cousin to our emblematic cotton as well as the hibiscus and hollyhock. After the boll weevil decimated King Cotton, the pesky bug turned to okra for breakfast, lunch and supper. Travelers noted okra cultivation in Egypt as far back as 1216, so like most Southerners, okra likes to trace its lineage back a bit. Even today, okra grows wild in West Africa and in parts of India.

It has been popular in our neck of the woods since the 18th century . . . reported by Thomas Jefferson. Aside from its veggie status, whether fried, pickled or paired with onions and tomatoes or used to thicken stews, okra is extraordinarily versatile. During the Civil War, the benighted plant was used by Confederates as plasma and a blood extender. Unable to get coffee, they also made do with a hot drink made from okra seeds, which they pretended was a macchiato from Starbucks.

Possible future uses for okra include a particle board material that is better than material we use now, even chopped into feed for livestock and using roots and stems as fuel. It has been used “for making rope and producing paper.”

But wait until you hear the medicinal benefits. It’s a great low-calorie, zero-fat (unless fried) food. Also a super fiber additive, diuretic, and even contains a male contraceptive, gossypol. Wait, there’s more. Its laxative constituent feeds you good bacteria and slows the rate of sugar in the intestinal tract, stabilizing your blood sugar. Scientists claim that okra helps with acid reflux, and aids in controlling asthma.

It all sounds a bit like the snake-oil salesman in the Wizard of Oz, but studies are recognizing okra’s value. And your mental health is not ignored. Okra is said to be excellent for those feeling exhausted and experiencing depression. Okra seems to have something for everyone.

My husband, wearing his beloved pith helmet, planted a Victory Garden in our side yard. He especially prized his lush okra plants with its star-shaped leaves and spectacular white flowers. But in the sizzling July sun, the plants were prone to fainting . . . a case of the real Victorian vapors. Extra watering revived them for a while, but soon the heat exhaustion set in again, and the okra plants bent back on their stems in a full-out swoon.

Their gardener in his pith helmet devised a rescue plan — ingenious but bizarre. He gathered every umbrella in the house, tied each umbrella to a stake next to each distressed okra plant, and opened every umbrella. Yellows, green checks, fuchsia stripes and firehouse reds (even one red, black and white Mickey Mouse vinyl number) bloomed over the garden. Dazzling!

Passersby stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of the umbrella bouquet. All onlookers agreed it was a novel horticultural solution. Despite my Rube Goldberg’s heroic and theatrical efforts, the okra succumbed. The plants were taken off life support. The umbrellas were returned to their respective closets and automobiles. The day of the whimsical flowers was over . . . the riot of color . . . gone.

Okra, prone to be the object of jokes, seems to lend itself to the theater of the absurd. In Mississippi, Delta State University even has a Fighting Okra mascot . . . no fooling. The official mascot is the Statesman, which is slightly overcome with its own gravitas, especially in contrast to the overwhelming popularity of the zany Fighting Okra.

I think our Carolina cousins to the South may be on to something. The Okra Strut in Irmo, South Carolina, began in 1974 and every September offers a parade, crafts, fried okra, of course, and a highlight event called the Shoot-out at the Okra Corral . . . an eating contest featuring what else?

So if you have been sneering at this fuzzy vegetable, please give it a second chance. We all deserve one. And that old Southern standby might even become the new kale! PS

Nan Graham is a frequent contributor with unparalleled knowledge of the South.

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