source: USA Today
Growing up in the United Kingdom, Chris Smith didn’t eat okra. But he married a woman from South Carolina, and when he moved to the United States he came to love the often slimy green pods. In his book “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration” (Chelsea Green Publishing), Smith offers a lively feast for fellow okra fans, from history and botany to recipes and gardening advice. In May, “The Whole Okra” won the prestigious 2020 James Beard Award for best work of food scholarship. Smith talked to USA Today's The American South about his devotion to this often maligned vegetable.
The American South: How did a British man come to love okra?
Chris Smith: Through growing it myself. It yielded so much food that I wanted to learn more about how to grow and interact with that food. That was the beginning of the rabbit hole.
TAS: You write about cooking okra, eating okra raw, eating the flowers, okra pizza and even okra marshmallows. How much okra is in your life?
CS: In some ways, I consider the book the start of my okra journey. Since its publication, I've connected with so many people that share a passion for okra. I keep thinking of new ways that I could use okra. At the beginning of this week, for example, I had 2,000 pounds of okra seeds delivered, and a few breweries are looking to use it for okra seed beer. It’s really an ongoing journey of okra craziness.
TAS: What is your okra shopping advice?
CS: There's some standard things, like making sure there are no brown spots. If the pods do have spines on them, then I wouldn't say that's a put off. The spines cook out straightaway. When the pods are really small, they taste a little grassier. That's because you're experiencing more of the chlorophyll. But as the pod gets older seeds development inside, and you get more complex nutty and sweet flavors. I think okra tastes best when it's big, but not so big that it has developed fibers. At a farmers market, if the farmer will let you, take a pod and try to snap the tip off. If it snaps cleanly, then it has no fibers even if it’s a nine-inch pod. If the pod splinters, then you know it's not good to cook.
TAS: As an immigrant to America and a newcomer to the South, how did you learn about okra’s connection to the region’s history and legacy of slavery?
CS: As I started researching, it became clear very quickly that okra has African American cultural ties. It originates in East Africa and is very present in West Africa. It came across with the slave trade, so that connection isn't hidden -- even though most people these days when they think about food don't think about it being grown.
TAS: What makes okra a good crop as our world faces more effects of climate change?
CS: We need crops that can cope with those extreme heat indexes that we're beginning to experience more often. Okra is extremely tolerant, even loving, of the heat. Okra is drought tolerant, because it has a heavy root system that allows it to mine for water. That same root system means you can grow okra with few petrochemical-based fertilizers. It doesn't suffer from many pest problems, so we don't have to spray it as often. We also need to shift toward crops that offer multiple rewards from a single planting. With okra, you can harvest the leaves early on. You can harvest the pods later. You can let it go to a seed crop. And then you still have stalks that offer a fiber crop. Okra can displace a lot of modern big agriculture in a positive way.
Learn more about Smith and his work at The Utopian Seed Project.