Growing up in north central Pennsylvania I never heard of okra. The word might have shown up in a book I was reading but that is as close as I ever came to knowing anything about it. Then I moved to Texas and, as part of my indoctrination by new friends, I was introduced to the nasty stuff. I'll give it credit – it's cute – but that's it. What on earth possessed Mother Nature to create something that is fuzzy on the outside and slimy on the inside and call it food?
My first encounter with okra was at a friend's house. It was New Year's Day and I was invited over for black-eyed peas, cornbread and okra. I was informed that was the way to start a new year guaranteed to bring health and happiness. The cornbread was delicious, the black-eyed peas were pretty good, but the okra? Gag. I went home and fixed some sauerkraut -- that makes sense.
Some time later my boyfriend at the time, a 6'5” Australian photographer who had lived in Houston much too long, took me to his favorite eating establishment, a place called the Magnolia Cafe many miles out of town where they served ginormous chicken-fried steaks guaranteed to make you feel the need to walk back to Houston. Chicken-fried steaks are a diabolical invention anyway. Who but a Texan would decide to:
- Take an enormous slab of well-marbled beef
- Dip it in a mixture a thick, carbohydrate-loaded batter
- Deep fry it in sizzling hot fat
- Serve it drooping over the sides of a platter covered in an inch and a half of cream gravy
Along with the chicken fried steak (on separate plates because the dinner plate was invisible under the monstrous, cream-gravy slathered steak) came four soup bowls filled with: mashed potatoes, whipped with tons of butter and milk; coleslaw drenched in mayonnaise and sugar; pickled watermelon rind which was actually wonderful despite being like candy; and okra that had been dipped in more batter and deep fried. Oh, and hush puppies, don't forget the hush puppies, balls of golden, crunchy cornmeal fried in more fat and rolled in sugar. All washed down with a couple Shiners.
We went there several times and I always remember coming home with buckets full of leftovers – except the okra. I lost that as quickly as possible. It looked lovely – crunchy and golden in such a cute little shape. But then you bit into it and got a mouthful of okra snot. Blyech.
Later, another boyfriend, a Texas Aggie who worked his way through school in south Texas oilfields, took me to a restaurant that was popular with the roughnecks he worked with. It was a wonderful place out in the middle of nowhere that had once been an schoolhouse. Inside were long wooden tables with benches where everyone sat together. There was a long buffet table groaning under the weight of food and two cast iron stoves on which sat washtubs full of food. You paid $5 at the door and ate until you couldn't move. Most of the patrons were oilfield workers and, in fairness, they looked like eating enormous amounts of food was necessary for their work – most of them were lean, muscular, and tough looking.
But my boyfriend loaded my plate when he decided I wasn't going to take my money's worth on my own and he topped the godawful mess with heaping scoops of okra. Yuck.
Well, I left Texas and, though I knew I would miss many things, I knew okra wasn't among them. This year for Christmas, one of my friends who is a fabulous cook, gave me her usual basket of homemade goodies. There was an indescribably wonderful, whiskey-infused fruitcake among other things... and a little package of these hard green thingies that looked like – oh, horrors – okra!
“Is this a joke?” I asked.
“I know you think you hate okra,” she said, “but try one.”
So I did. It was light, crispy, crunchy and – amazing! – no snot.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It's an okra chip,” she said. “I got it from your favorite store, Nuts Online. Aren't they delicious?”
Grudgingly, I had to admit they were. So, keeping to my plan to eat vegetables with every meal and to replace meat with whole grains, beans and nuts for most meals, I decided to add them to my most recent order. I got quinoa and red rice, steel cut oats, cashews, goji berries and chia seeds and... okra chips. They arrived yesterday and I had some last night for a snack. They were actually delicious – without the snot.
Thanks for reading.