August 12, 2008

Okra Confessional

My knowledge of Southern food is, well, limited. Very limited. Here is my confession: My name is Jada, and even though I write a food blog about food, the pleasures of eating it, and the things I know about it, I must embarrassingly admit that, before last week, I had no idea what okra was. I (maybe) knew that okra was food, and I (probably) knew that it was green; otherwise, okra was a fuzzy mystery that my mouth had never experienced.

And maybe it should have stayed a mystery…or, at least my version of it.

Craving a fresh and meaty peach, I drove over the river to Eagle Island Fruit and Fish Market for the second time in one week. The wide variety of this market is fantastic: South Carolina peaches bursting at their fuzzy seams, quarts of freshly picked blackberries for $2.50, and all the catfish, night crawlers and moonshine-flavored pancake syrup a gal could ever want!

In addition to these beautiful, (mostly-) tasty & edible products, Eagle Island also sells okra—and lots of it. Whenever I move to a new place, I find it necessary to sample whatever I can of the local cuisine. I had never tasted okra, and there it was piled in glorious (yet intimidating) piles in front of me. Since I am not yet fluent in okra, I chose a few of each shade: light and airy green, to the confident and presumptuous pea green. Some carried the bruises of maturation, while others bore the daring gleam of teenagers.

After purchasing these furry pods of varying shade and experience, I began worrying about how to prepare them. Should they be steamed? Fried? Eaten raw? Should I bread them with cornmeal? Flour? Should I give them names and tuck them into lettuce-leaf sleeping bags before bedtime? (My neuroses has hit a new high.)

Like any other computer-dependent 20-something, I directed these questions to the most valuable, wizardly source available: the Internet. There, I found out that frying my okra was not the only option; I could also chop it up and eat it raw. This relieved me, as I usually don’t like to dunk my food into a pool of oil unless, of course, I’m making eggrolls. Or frybread. Or breaded cauliflower. Or fried cheese. Or…

OK. So I DO enjoy fried food. But, if I’m sampling a food for the first time, I’d like to taste the entire idea of the food before baptizing it in oil. The act of frying sometimes compromises the integrity of a dish. I wanted to save the delicious degradation for later.

(Note: Sometimes real live people should be consulted before the Internet. Especially when working with okra. And especially if the Internet is telling you to eat okra raw. Remember that the Internet does not have taste buds, and should, therefore, not be the ultimate authority on food preparation.)

So, since I had a lot of other delicious vegetables on-hand—turnips, broccoli, red bell peppers, snow peas, etc.—I decided to make a fresh chop salad with a balsamic & pomegranate molasses dressing. After happily chopping all of my vegetables, I unveiled my okra pods from their plastic sheath. They looked stunning: long, sleek pleats ran from stem to base; fine furs softened what, otherwise, could have been a stiff and cold demeanor.

I chopped the first pod with much enthusiasm, and just when my glee was at its peak, I tossed a piece into my mouth. It was then that I felt it: the jelly-like innards oozing to the back of my tongue and down my throat. The sensation was fun, but not appetizing. Who knew that a pretty and respectable pod could so quickly transform into disreputable slime! This same gel is actually what makes for a good gumbo. During the cooking process, okra releases this sticky substance, which, ultimately, works to thicken the gumbo.

Good for the gumbo, but bad for me.

When I told some of my co-workers about my experience, they, too, seemed disgusted that I had disgraced the okra by not frying it before consumption. Frying, a process that I had earlier assumed would compromise the okra, actually, according to okra-professionals (or at least the people who eat it, cook it, love it), might enhance its qualities after all. While in the fryer, okra’s gel infuses and strengthens the breading, making for a jelly-free meal! (According to a reputable source--human, not Internet--cornmeal makes for a better breading than flour.)

Hopefully this weekend I will get the chance to plunge my hands into the okra bin once again, and if all goes well, I will learn to love this furry, gelatinous pod. If there’s anything I’ve learned so far in Coastal Carolina, it is this: if you don’t like it, fry it!

*I apologize for the lack of photos on this blog. I will soon be purchasing a digital camera, which will make for a prettier page.

1 comment:

Paul Allor said...

I wonder how common a lack of okra-knowledge is for northerners. Gumbo is big in my family, so I'm very familiar with it. But when I lived in Kentucky I decided to make tofu gumbo for the house. My roommate who was in charge of shopping was from Oregon, and when he returned from the grocery store, I noticed that he had brought me ... no okra. The following conversation ensued:

Me: You didn't buy okra?
Tom: No.
Me: But ... I'm making gumbo.
Tom: Well, i guess they didn't have it.
Me: But ... I'm making gumbo.
Tom: There are plenty of other vegetables. I'm sure it will be fine.
Me: But ... I'm making gumbo.

And so on.

So I went to the grocery store and found okra in about ten seconds. I suspect that he just didn't know what okra was (or what gumbo was), and was too embarrassed to ask.