Communion with Cornmeal

I come from generations of gardeners. When we moved into our house last year, it was too late in the summer for planting. I vowed an early start in the next season. This year, however, brought mostly failed experiments with container gardening. My tomatoes grew weary in the dry heat, dropping leaves and blossoming worth with small, wrinkled fruit. I tried summer squash – remembering the butter yellow vegetables my mother grew. My plants protested confinement in pots, however large. But one hardy vegetable flourished in the ten square feet I allotted it. Okra, that heat-loving Southern staple.

It’s one of the easiest plants to grow, and it makes an interesting addition to your garden. The yellow blossoms with their deep red centers reveal the plant’s place in the mallow family, a relative of the hibiscus. A little water, lots of sun, and you’re rewarded with hardy, heat-loving stalks and enough okra pods to share with your friends and family. Okra is best right after it is picked. The stuff you see in a grocery store most likely will be soft and wilted. If you don’t have a spot to grow it yourself, pick it up at a Farmers Market. Okra is delicious roasted. Boiled it makes a tasty thickener for stews and gumbo. My favorite way to cook it is to bread it in either corn meal or flour and fry it.

Okra

The blooms open in the early morning sun, around the time I set aside for harvesting the pods. Bees circle the plants, landing and picking up their fill of pollen while I brush aside the broad leaves and search for the tasty green okra. I’m growing Clemson Spineless – a kinder variety from the one I picked as a child in my mother’s garden. Those plants and their pods were covered in prickly spines that raised red welts on the tender flesh of my arms. The rash, however, was payment for the reward – plates of crunchy, cornmeal breaded and fried okra.

Okra plants in my garden

As I pick the pods, I can imagine the taste of the crispy chunks. Okra has a flavor that reminds me of cool green grass. It tastes like summer. I remember my mother, setting the table with fried okra and red slices of tomato. She pan-fried her okra in shortening with a little bacon grease mixed in for flavor. I cook mine in canola oil and skip the bacon grease. Like my mom, I use a cast iron skillet. Each bite I take I taste the past.

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