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The Arduous Journey of Okra from Africa to the Southern Table

Okra is a mysterious presence in Southern cuisine. It is one of the more unique items whose cooking is varied to extreme based on which part of the South you call home. In regard to okra the question of how you eat it is somewhat dependent on whether or not you grew up in a coastal area or you grew up in the more landlocked parts of the region. Growing up we ate okra on a regular basis. My mother was from Tuscumbia, Alabama and my father’s family was from Lawrenceburg, TN (by way of the Appalachian Mountains.) We fried everything – including okra. You would never find okra cooked in Low Country style or served over rice on our table.  

Among all the foods on the Southern table, the route okra took to arrive here appears to be the one most in doubt. The origins of okra are not in doubt. Okra originated in Eastern Africa. It was found wild in Ethiopia and in Egypt. The first written accounts of okra were from Muslim traders in the 12th century.  Heavy trade between Ethiopia, neighboring Egypt, and the Moors meant okra was traded throughout the Mediterranean.  

Many vegetables with African and Mediterranean ties made their way to the new world via Spanish exploration. However, there is no indication this is also true for okra. Though the first slave landed in Virginia in 1619, it was the writings of Sir Han Sloane that first mentioned okra upon his visit to Jamaica in 1687. The next mention of okra was from a parcel mailed from South Carolina to England which contained okra seeds and by 1748 okra was observed growing as far north as Pennsylvania. 

Okra, ready to be stewed, deep fried, or pickled!

There are stories that slaves were able to bring okra seeds with them across the Atlantic hidden as decoration and braided into their hair. I have read this over and over in magazine articles and blog posts but have not found a significant academic source for this story. I have also questioned it. Some articles I have read have indicated the slaves “hid” the seeds some other way. The harsh treatment of the those kidnapped from their homelands, lacking in nutrition or hygiene and being bound from Africa to their next destination certainly calls this into question. Micheal W. Twitty of Afroculinaria indicates his questioning of the story as well. “I’m skeptical of it, but I think it also represents the beautiful, lyrical metaphors that we live by. I figure it really means we kept the seeds in our head, in the luggage between your ears—your brain,” explains Twitty. Serigne Mbaye, a New Orleans-based chef says, “I think sometimes we need to be very careful of how we tell the story, especially chefs. We know that if it wasn’t for [the Black diaspora], okra would never be a Southern cooking staple. But we’ve lost the stories of how it got here...” 

They may be right. Perhaps the actual path is less important than the story of what happened next. For those of us who love okra or those that may not love it but appreciate it for its place in Southern cuisine, we have those who endured the trans-Atlantic crossing to thank. Southerners who live in coastal areas can trace gumbo (a West African word for okra) to the dishes prepared by slaves when they lived as freed men and women in the place of their birth and later cooked in their new involuntary homeland. Quickly slave owners adapted and began to use okra as well. Initially it was used as a thickener in soups but quickly grew to be a staple in the Southern diet – prepared like a soup over rice in Low Country areas and fried in areas with less accessibility to seafood. 


For me, I do love okra but have never met a gumbo I liked.  I prefer my mother’s method of frying the okra in the skillet with cornmeal crumbled all around, which may also be a technique originated from slaves that was disseminated throughout the South. It is also always, without fail, one of my “sides” when we visit Cracker Barrel! Below is the recipe for okra. It can be difficult to be found out of season in grocery stores. If you are patient and wait for summer, you can find it at local farmer’s markets throughout the American south. If you have never had okra, well, it is a bit of an acquired taste. 

For many of us, okay is one of those foods that feels like home. It does not matter how it is prepared. What I mean is your okra may be in the form of a soup with tomatoes over rice or it may be like mine and fried until golden brown, it is a cultural symbol of our birth, a culinary representation of our past, and a delicious dish to share on your Sunday table.

***Unfortunately, I was unable to find okra in my local stores to cook for this section. Had I realized acquiring okra in 2024 when it is not in season would have been so difficult, I would have simply ordered it from my favorite restaurant. Oh well. This gives me something to look forward to during my revision. 


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