May 12, 2012

Ode to Okra. ~ Peggy Markel.

Courtesy of the author

Candlelight graces a table on our houseboat in Kerala.

Tears well and fall down my cheeks at the taste of okra.

The cook comes in, “Ma’am are you alright? Was the food too spicy for you?” I smile and nod subtly sideways, the Indian way that says…no…yes…maybe.

“Her father died two years ago,” my friend tells him. The cook’s bright smile closes as he says, “I’m sorry.” He didn’t question why tears should be falling from something that happened long ago. In India, crying is normal.

Meanwhile, I sat there feeling the tears roll down my face fresh as rain, moisture on dry thirsty skin. In my mind, I was not at the table, but found myself clear as the early morning in a memory of being in the family garden with my father.

Peppers hot and ready for pickling; tomatoes heavy on the vine, pole beans falling from the trellis and the okra was sticking straight up, saluting to the sky.

Courtesy of the author

I remember okra growing in my grandfather’s garden in the deep-Southern terra-cotta colored dirt of Clay County, Alabama. That orange earth, infused with minerals, never lacked for nutrients. And neither did we. The taste of corn, black-eyed peas and of course, okra, gave a lasting flavor in the mouth of something you yearned for more of. Long stems grew tall with subtle yellow flowers in springtime, before warm, sensual summer nights encouraged the nub of okra to swell almost overnight.

As my grandfather hoed around the plants one morning, he heard a squeak. He had come upon a bed of baby rabbits. He brought them to me with the eyes of surprise. I fed them a baby bottle. They didn’t make it.

Picking okra is prickly business. A chance to wear Papa’s worn out long-sleeved, red flannel shirts. I liked to wear his old striped overalls as well (the older the better to play farmer). My sisters and I played in the old smoke house, dug in the garden, drew water from the well and amused ourselves playing hide and seek in the corn patch.

Cutting okra was slimy. Putting it in a paper bag with cornmeal and shaking it was the way to take care of that. Dropping it in hot corn oil and watching it turn golden is a visual memory that sticks, a fried delight that can’t be beat. With a sprinkle of salt, it gives a crunch of southern satisfaction.

Fried okra is a staple in the south, along with black-eyed peas and cornbread. Not everyone’s friend, okra becomes triple unxious, seedy and slithery not unlike cooked snake, but less chewy, when boiled. I have eaten snake before (rattlesnake) that had been caught and killed in the hills of Tennessee and skinned for it’s skin.

I tried it. I can assure you it tastes like chicken, not boiled okra. I’m not saying that okra tastes anything like snake, just that if you wanted to make an obsequious Halloween dish, blindfolded, boiled okra would do it.

Those days are gone, along with grandfather and my father. In the familiar heat of Kerala, on a houseboat, I had a conversation with my childhood and a loving memory through the association of a vegetable. Visions come not only with psychedelics, but taste memory in bright living color.

Sign up for Peggy’s monthly newsletter, to receive stories, videos, recipes and updates in your inbox. Join the PMCA community on Facebook for photos and stories from the road. For the past 17 years Peggy Markel has traversed the Mediterranean and North Africa, from Elban fishing villages and Moroccan markets to the homes of Tuscan artisans and chefs, furthering her own exploration of culture and cuisine. On these journeys, she saw an opportunity to design and direct her own brand of culinary tours in which enjoyment of the present place and moment plays a pivotal role.
“When we speak of Slow Travel, we mean that particular experience of letting yourself merge with your surroundings: the pace, customs, mores and style of where you find yourself. It’s really about our willingness to let the world in, and see ourselves a part of it.” For more information about Peggy’s trips and classes: peggymarkel.com; for more writing and recipes by Peggy: peggymarkel.blogspot.com or follow Peggy on Twitter.

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Editors: Bryonie Wise/Kate Bartolotta
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