Southern Food Profile: Okra
“Okra came to the American South from Africa, with evidence suggesting that it originated in Ethiopia. The West African term, ukru ma, became okra after slaves brought the plant through the Caribbean to southern plantations. Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) mentioned the growing of okra in the state, and Mary Randolph’s Virginia House-wife (1824) gave some of the earliest published recipes for its use.
Southerners have boiled, fried, steamed, and pickled the okra pod. They have cooked the plant’s leaves and flower buds and eaten them as greens. Civil War era southerners ground okra seeds and used them as a coffee substitute when coffee beans were unavailable. Okra is cooked in soups and stews, with gumbo a major okra-based southern dish. If a southerner with a predilection for both ancestor worship and cooking decided to form a First Families of Vegetables society, okra would be a charter member. Thomas Jefferson recorded planting it and originally reported its cultivation in Virginia before 1781. It had reached Louisiana shortly after 1700.
Okra (Hibiscus esculentus) is a member of the mallow family (Malvaceae), as are cotton, hibiscus, and hollyhocks. The okra pod is a tapering, five-“sided capsule containing numerous round seeds, and its best-known feature is its gummy, mucilaginous juice.
Okra, like the peanut, has a myriad of uses: southerners have used it to staunch bleeding, substitute for plasma, make a coarse cloth or paper, adorn dried flower arrangements, produce seed necklaces, clean metal, unstop drains, increase milk yield of cows. Raw okra will also adhere to the nose and forehead for a speedy Halloween mask.”
~ John T. Edge, Excerpt From, “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture”