In vegetable politics, okra is a wedge issue.
Mentioning okra can cause a fight as quickly as bringing up immigration policy in a presidential debate. Is the green pod an alien menace or cherished part of southern cooking? Discuss.
I went to a farm dinner recently, one of those currently popular events where you sign up without knowing what will be on the menu ahead of time (other then vegetarian or not). I think the bit of mystery is intriguing, like a surprise party for food. But you do have to be trusting, not the sort of person who asks for the dressing on the side after interrogating the waiter about whether the salad has radishes.
Hub and I introduced ourselves to nearby diners at the long outdoor table. In the course of chit-chat over beers, I mentioned that I had put up pickled okra that morning.
During my many years of canning, I have noticed what sells with my friends for holiday gifts – which things elicit a tepid “oh” and which items eventually yield empty jars returned to beg for refilling.
By the way, people should be trained on the etiquette of canning jars, since I’ve found that many otherwise well-brought up people don’t seem to know that one returns the jars in which one received homemade items to encourage the receiving of future bounty. Those jars are pricey, y’all. Don’t chuck ‘em in the recycling bin unless you never want to see that hand-crushed low-sugar Sweet Charlie strawberry jam again.
I’ve found that it’s impossible to make too much peach jam, anything with figs and the infamous vegetable relish. A chef friend who is addicted to the relish recently commented on my Facebook photo of about 30 just-canned jars: “Doesn’t look like there’s enough.” And there probably isn’t.
A small but vocal contingent adores bread-and-butter pickles, that classic combination of cucumbers and onions. Another faction craves watermelon-lemongrass jelly, a relatively new arrival to my canning team, which looks like rosy stained glass.
However, the six pints of pickled okra I made will probably be gracious plenty, even considering how much I eat it. That’s why I added garlic and brown habaneros; hot and spicy, just how I like it. Maybe I can rename it “Green Tongues of Fire” instead of pickled okra. They say it’s all in the marketing.
People who love okra, they really love it. “I could sit down and eat a whole jar,” they say, as a neighbor did when she saw my okra on the kitchen counter. Those kinds of people put it in their bloody marys and martinis, and spread it around instead of dill pickles. Like me, they cherish the sacred Thanksgiving relish tray and wouldn’t dare put it out without pickled okra. They pair pickled okra with pimento cheese, which rocks the whole creamy-salty-tart triumvirate.
Nor would they consider okra-less gumbo anything less than a travesty.
Those who despise okra shout one word as their justification:
I believe the correct term is “natural moisture.” It does not exist in all uses of okra and, as I explained to the skeptics at our table, not in pickles – if you really mind the slime, which I don’t. Long ago I learned to relate to and understand the slime, and appreciate it for its otherworldly self.
Then the entree arrived: A slice of beautiful roast pork and pretty little thumb-sized pods of grilled okra, sliced open lengthwise to show the round white seeds inside like pearls in a gift box. That cranked up the skeptics again, although the pods were completely dry and tender.
Look, slime – or as Virginia Willis calls it in her book “Okra: A Savor the South Cookbook,” soluble digestive fiber that aids the plant in storing water and helps the seed germinate – is perfectly natural. As a concession to the anti-slimers, she lists “slime-busting tips,” including cooking the pods whole, using small pods and not overcooking the okra (produces more slime) or covering it while cooking (steams it, encourages slime).
(Full disclosure: Besides being an okra evangelist, I have written two books in the Savor the South series.)
Nevertheless, the okra doubters continue to quietly – sometimes noisily – doubt.
I feel sorry for them, truly I do. Because if they don’t like slime, they’re really going to suffer during the coming election season.
Moose is a Raleigh cookbook author and former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at debbiemoose.com.