How I Learned to Cherish Okra, the Love-It-or-Hate-It Summer Vegetable

Memories of Mississippi and the vegetable with nostalgic roots.

Fresh Okra
Photo: Antonis Achilleos; Prop Styling: Kay E. Clarke; Food Styling: Emily Nabors Hall

A three-acre garden doesn't offer any shade. I learned this lesson all too well as a child when I'd spend time at my paternal grandparents' farm outside Grenada, Mississippi. They devoted the rest of their 10 acres to horses and an occasional cow, who had the luxury of shade trees along the fence line. But the tractor-plowed rows of garden took the brunt of the summer sun, helping it to overflow with unruly field peas, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, watermelons, yellow squash, and okra—the last of which I developed a powerful love-hate relationship with.

Being allowed to harvest the produce was such fun for a kid like me who lived in town, a mere 8 miles away, and who enjoyed playing the role of farm girl every now and then. At least it was fun for the first few minutes, before the heat and humidity fully registered. Thankfully, tomatoes were quick and easy to pick—squash, watermelons, peppers, peas, and beans too. But the okra felt like punishment. I took my time with it, despite the heat, doing my best to avoid the prickly parts of the plant. Yet no matter how careful I was, those little spines on the stalks and leaves always got me. I wouldn't realize the damage until later, when a dip in the bathtub would make my tiny, invisible wounds painfully apparent. I imagine my grandparents laughing as they overheard me kid-cursing under my breath, mumbling "dadgum okra" as I rubbed the sore spots with a washcloth.

Even so, I cherished that okra. It was so fresh that it never saw the inside of the refrigerator. The pain was worth it; those tender pods with their asparagus-like flavor were a real treat. My grandmother would cut them into 1-inch slices, toss them in cornmeal and salt, and fry them. I loved her version of fried okra so much more than the heavily breaded kind at the cafeteria style restaurants we'd sometimes visit. I'd painstakingly pick off most of the breading, trying to somehow re-create her ratio of okra to coating so more vegetable flavor would shine through. Sometimes, she'd toss a few slices into a pot of field peas to thicken the cooking liquid. And she would occasionally simmer okra with chopped tomatoes, creating that classic love-it-or-hate-it Southern side. The viscous texture didn't bother me; I speared several okra wheels on my fork so I could get a big mouthful in each bite.

As an adult, I still fry it the way my grandmother taught me, but I've expanded my repertoire over the years, stuffing the pods with cheese like you would jalapeño poppers, pickling them with a good splash of bourbon, or eating them—if they're small, tender, and very fresh—mostly raw in a salad.

I've even tried to grow okra with little success. I'm just a lousy gardener. Luckily, I have access to farmers' markets and produce stands where I can buy the fresh, young pods in the summertime. I'll still squeeze a few of them to make sure they're good, confirmed by the prick of those little spikes in my older fingers. Dadgum okra.

Okra Basics

Three tips for picking and prepping

Select Small

Pods that are about 3 inches long are more likely to be tender, while ones that are 6 inches or larger tend to be woody.

Check the Color

Pick pods that are vibrant green (or purple). Even small ones can be surprisingly tough if they're pale.

Be Quick

Once you cut into fresh okra, it will start to release its mucilaginous goo. This sticky substance is great for thickening gumbo or field peas but might not be what you want for your basket of fried okra. Work with speed to cut down on the slime, and don't chop okra into very small pieces, which will make it gooier.

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