Thursday, August 11, 2016

"Mommy, what will happen to the okra?"

For the past few weeks, I have been obsessed with the idea of making pickled okra, seasoned with fresh garlic, dill, and hot pepper to give it a kick. In my pursuit of okra, I visited the major supermarkets in my southwest London neighborhood.  I was disappointed that there wasn't any okra when I went to my local Whole Foods, which for some reason I expected to carry it.  A week later I returned and asked the produce manager, who told me that the supermarket used to stock okra.  When I inquired as to why it no longer did, she told me that, "Our customers don't like the taste of okra." This statement was accompanied by a slightly wrinkled nose.  I was surprised.

Her comment was a very good illustration of the ways in which food and culture are mutually constituted. In my mind, any self-respecting supermarket would stock produce as diverse as lemongrass AND okra!  Apparently the Whole Foods in my neighborhood had not gotten that memo.

After two weeks of disappointment, I sat down and really thought about the elusive okra that I was seeking.  I started with a basic question: What are the origins of okra, culturally and geographically?

The slaves who came to the southern United States brought okra with them from their homes in West Africa (okra is well-known throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East).  Hence, okra is a southern table's staple.  Pickled okra is just one manifestation of that region's cultural embrace of this vegetable.  Other forms include fried okra and of course the famous gumbos of New Orleans.  My mother was from Virginia and I remember eating okra on a regular basis as a child growing up in New York City.  She would saute it with onions, garlic and tomatoes.  Sometimes it would appear in stews.

These anthropological and personal reflections served me well as I sat in my kitchen.  When the answer came to me, it felt obvious and self-evident: find Africans and I would find okra.   Nigeria and Ghana are former British colonies, and these populations are found in significant numbers in the greater London area. So without having any particular market in mind, I set off for Brixton. Historically, the area had been London's Caribbean and African stronghold and still hosts members of these communities, although in recent years gentrification has diluted their presence as hipsters seeking affordable housing slowly displace them.

Brooks, my astute 11-year-old son, had gone with me to Brixton before and we had discussed the neighborhood's demographic changes. When we arrived in Brixton to look for okra Brooks asked me, "Mommy, what will happen to the okra?" For him, Brixton's gentrification meant not just the loss of West Africans and Caribbean people, but also okra, stewed oxtail and patties,which are foods associated with the neighborhood's Caribbean population. His question was tinged with sadness at the prospect of people being displaced, as well as real concern about where we would find produce that is so bound up with particular geographies and culture.  I responded, "If we find black people, then we will find okra."

We got off at Brixton tube station, went left, and then took the first left down Electric Avenue (It's also the name of a song by Guyanese-British recording artist, Eddie Grant.  Check out the song and video here: The song came out after the 1981 Brixton riot).

I found okra at the very first market. There it was, outside next to Scotch bonnet chilies!

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I bought about 3 pounds of it. The first thing that I did when I went home was to prep the okra for the pickling process.  This  meant washing and trimming it.

Then I made the pickling liquid, which is a combination of white vinegar and water, boiled together. The fresh dill, garlic, hot pepper and okra are put in sterilized jars and the pickling liquid is poured over them. Then the jars are processed in a water bath for 10 minutes, which serves to make an airtight seal and kill any bacteria.

The end product was quite pretty!

You can eat pickled okra as part of a relish tray, with barbecue, on a grilled cheese sandwich, or in tuna or chicken salad.  Some use it in place of olives in martinis, or celery in a Bloody Mary.  You could also just eat them out of the jar!

My okra adventure  made me think more deeply about West Africa's culinary palette, and has inspired to me explore its foods more deeply.  It has been nearly a year since I visited Liberia, where I lived for nearly two years.  I find myself pining for Liberian pepper sauce, fish gravy and jollof rice, which is found all over West Africa.

Stay tuned for a series on West African food!

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