Mamma’s Fried Okra

Mamma always had a crowd to feed. By the time the oldest ones of we ten flew the coop, they started returning home with friends and then with spouses and then with children. There were always so many of us that we left nothing in the pot at the end of a meal. Or, in the case of okra, no nibbles in the bowl.

Picking, or cutting, okra was a very itchy job. We were given gloves to wear and long sleeves. But I never could bear to wear gloves and I hung the extra shirt on a sourwood limb as soon as I was out of sight of the house. Grasping the okra pods, conscious to leave the tiny tender ones until the next day, we’d snip them right at the stalk. Morning glories glistening with morning dew brightened the scene, trying to overtake Mamma’s neat garden. There were cucumbers to pick, too, a favorite of mine since, to me, picking cucumbers was like looking for Easter eggs. And there was crook-neck squash hiding like sleeping babies under big umbrella leaves. There were onions, too, and, even, in a special corner of the garden, a small patch of rhubarb. But, back to the okra, however much we found and packed into our buckets, that’s how much Mamma would cook for supper.

She showed us how to slice the okra the thickness of three nickels, no more, and then she’d dredge the little circles in cornmeal or flour. She’d put a big spoonful of lard in her largest iron pan and set it on the woodburning stove. (Yes, in those days lard was part of our regular fare. Mamma bought it by the bucket, wistfully remembering when her family had hogkillings and made their own lard.) We were not to stir the okra until the bottom pieces would have browned to a crisp. “If you stir it too quickly, you’ll make the whole mess turn mushy,” she warned.

Mamma’s okra always turned out delicious, though sometimes crisper than others according to how much okra she cooked. Smaller batches were always the best. With larger batches she sometimes had to set the pan in the oven and bake the okra for a while. Either way, as I said, not one nibble would be left in the bowl. If one of us started to be greedy and take too much, knowing we might not have a second chance, Mamma would give us a look and we’d dutifully pass the bowl along.

Once, when my sister Jackie’s fiancé was visiting, Dad, who was inordinately proud of Mamma’s cooking, and who was also hoping to make Fred’s visit memorable, urged Fred to have some okra. Fred took a modest helping, though he later confided he detested okra. Wishing to enjoy the rest of his meal in peace, he ate the okra first. Dad noticed his plate. “Eula, the boy really likes your okra, give him some more.” Fred consumed at least three helpings of okra that day, but never wanted any again!

But he was about the only one who didn’t like Mamma’s crisply fried okra.

And today I make it, too. I still use an iron pan, but I use olive oil now. I still slice the okra thinly and dredge it in flour. And I still carefully wait for that bottom layer to crisp before I start lightly stirring. We have a standing tradition that no okra be saved until the next day. My grandson Charles D will grab the bowl if he has half a chance and dump the last circles on his plate! But he has learned to look around the table and politely ask if anyone wants more before he takes it.

When I go to the market to choose okra, I always select tender pods, not great big ones. As I do, I remember Mamma’s morning gloried garden and I can just smell the mixture of dew on disturbed leaves, the greening smell of squash vines, and hear the buzzing of a june bug. I can’t help thinking, too, of my father-in-law, JB, who farmed in south Georgia and peddled his beautiful vegetables in Coolidge and Thomasville. He had quite a clientele of bank clerks, dental hygienists, grocery managers and more. It was always a privilege to receive his generous gifts of vegetables–cantaloupes, squash, all kinds of peas, corn, and his wonderful okra!

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