A good friend of mine once said that he wouldn’t eat anything unless it could be placed between two pieces of bread or fried. He couldn’t be closer to the truth. In the South, folks love fried food. Heck, we’ll fry just about anything that moves or grows in the ground: fried chicken, fried catfish, fried okra, fried green tomatoes, and even fried pickles.
© 2014 Chris Terrell
A few months back, I got a deep fryer for my birthday. And life being what it is, I didn’t get the chance to use it until recently. And then the dilemma. What should I fry first? I thought about french fries, which I’ve made before, but I wanted something different. Fried chicken? Didn’t want to wait for the chicken to marinate over night in buttermilk.
Then it hit me in the middle of the produce section at the local Piggly Wiggly. I grabbed the arm of a young kid mechanically stacking tomatoes into a pyramid: “Hey, do you have any okra!” Once he recovered from my sudden burst of enthusiasm, he pointed rather vaguely to where I saw a lonely package of okra nestled between some yellow squash and zucchini.
Like a lot of things in the green food genus (a/k/a vegetables), I wasn’t a big fan of okra growing up. Maybe it was the way my mom prepared it. I don’t think she ever fried it, and if she had, I would have gobbled it up. Because let’s be frank, the best way to prepare this quirky little veggie is to fry it.
But before I give away my secret for making okra, let’s ponder the question: what the heck is okra? Like a lot of foods considered “Southern,” okra came to this country on the backs of African slaves. (The past is ever present even in Southern foodways. As Faulkner noted, “[t]he past is never dead. it’s not even past.”)
|File Photo: USDA|
The West African word ukru ma became the English word “okra.” And in Bantu, the language in Southern Africa, the word for okra is ngombo, which the word “gumbo” comes from. Gumbo and okra have been used interchangeably. And gumbo wouldn’t be gumbo without okra.
So how do I make fried okra? Let me start by pointing out that I’m not a big fan of okra fried in heavy batter, the kind one would find in most meat-and-threes. (If you don’t know what a meat-and-three is, then check this website out for a good definition and directory of where to find them in the South: Directory of Meat-and-Threes)
© 2014 Chris Terrell
Cut the okra crosswise and place it in a Ziploc bag with cornmeal, salt, pepper, and some cayenne pepper, and shake it like a wet dog. Place it in the fryer for about five minutes at 355 degrees until the okra turns a nice dark green and the cornmeal is a golden brown, and what you end up with is something that disappears like popcorn.
After the last piece of fried okra, my mind began to think of what I should fry next. It would have to be fried chicken because I’ve never made fried chicken in a deep fryer. I grew up on fried chicken made in a cast iron skillet on the stove with a moderate amount of oil. In fact, this is how a lot of Southerners made fried chicken before the invention of commercial and later home deep fryers.
All this talk about fried food perhaps begs the question. Why do Southerners like fried food? Who knows? Why do the French like cheese? Why do the Germans like sausage? Why do the Italians like pasta? Perhaps we like the foods we like because that’s what we know and what we grew up with.
It’s part of our history, good or bad. Just like okra.