Say Hello To Okra
Okra is such a ubiquitous part of Creole cuisine that anyone who's grown up in Southwest Louisiana might find it unremarkable. Passe', even. If it's not floating around deep-fried inside of a gumbo it's being stewed with tomatoes; on certain rare occasions it might show up pickled. It's a humble vegetable, hardly the sort of thing to inspire, and yet for some reason Saint Martinville stops everything once a year for their annual Okra Festival and Roy Blount Jr. made time in his busy career to write an ode to it (the appropriately named "Song to Okra”).
That might have more than a little to do with the fact that okra's history is so deeply entwined with Creole – and thus Louisiana – culinary culture. "The word 'gumbo' actually comes from the Swahili word 'ki ngombo,' which is what they called 'okra,” explains Panderina Soumas. And she should well know: Ms. Soumas, a major cook who also owns and operates Soumas Heritage Cultural Creations, traces her ancestry back to the same slaves who carried the first okra seeds over from West Africa to the Americas. Though some might suspect okra had originally been imported as a crop by plantation owners, Soumas says that's not the case: "Traders and plantation owners didn't care about growing okra because it wasn't profitable. They already had tobacco, cotton, their cash crops.” Instead, slaves carried it over – in their hair, where it had traditionally been braided, and in small pouches – in an attempt to keep their culture alive. Though they'd used okra as a crop in their native land it had a number of cultural uses – in fashion, in religion – that made it more useful as a reminder of identity than as a source of food for those first slaves.
Only when they found they had the ability and the need to grow their own crops in their quarters did the slaves start to rely on okra for food and only later still did the plantation owners learn from them that okra had more than a few culinary (and extra culinary) uses. As Soumas explains it, dried and ground okra seeds often served as a coffee substitute in a pinch and even had a number of medicinal uses: it shows up time and again as an ingredient in folk remedies meant to sooth teething children. More than that, though, it flourished so well in the humid Southern climate and did so much to thicken stews and roux that it soon found a natural place in the pantheon of Creole and Cajun ingredients. Which is not to say that it's universally revered: the same sliminess that makes it such a perfect thickening agent in gumbo also makes okra a risky, overpowering addition to most dishes. Soumas suggests adding only a small amount to dishes to lend them a light earthy, peppery taste. Failing that, she suggests stirring it constantly while you fry it, noting that her mother "always used a wooden spoon to stir it. It had to be a wooden spoon.”
Regardless of how you do it, make some use of okra. It's a staple of Southern cuisine and culture for more than a few reasons, it's got more than a few benefits for the health conscious (it's packed with Vitamins A and C, that it's got more than a little iron and it's a reliable source for dietary fiber) and its season is coming up: okra flourishes in the late summer and early fall.