Okra: How it Got to the United States, How to Grow it and How to Eat it


Today is Juneteenth/Freedom Day and this year, the commemoration falls after over three weeks of protesting police brutality and Black death in the United States; although chattel slavery was abolished 155 years ago, it is obvious that the grip of white-supremacy still holds this country far too tight.


This week's blog post, which focuses on okra, will kick off our series of striving to understand crops grown at the farm in an anti-colonial context. Okra is a plant with edible seed pods in the hibiscus/mallow family, alongside the sorrel, cotton, hibiscus, cacao plants and others. It is disputed where the plant originated, most likely somewhere in West Africa, but we do know that it was cultivated by ancient Egyptians (ancient Egypt was called Kemet, which means ‘black land’ and is believed to have referred to the generative soil in the region). Okra was brought to the United States via the transatlantic slave route at some point between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Farmer, educator and author Leah Penniman notes that in some cases, African women ‘braided seeds into their hair before being forced to board transatlantic slave ships, believing against the odds in a future of sovereignty on land’. Through the disgusting process that was transatlantic slavery, okra made its way from West Africa the the United States and became a staple, specifically in southern cooking, as enslavement existed for a longer period of time in the South and the warmer weather makes growing the plant more feasible. Okra is important in other diasporic cuisines, as well. It is important to consider, confront and honor the people and processes that made the plants and foods that we love so much today accessible to us.

Cultivating and caring for okra can be tricky depending on where you live, as it is a heat-loving plant. It is possible to grow it in colder, northern soils with the help of some sort of row cover or black plastic covering to heat up the soil. Starting okra indoors for 5-6 weeks helps ensure that the soil is warm enough when transplanting and it should not be planted until a few weeks after the last frost date. Once the plant reaches about 6 inches, it can be mulched. The seed pod itself can be harvested when it reaches the length of an index finger. Okra is a nitrogen-fixing crop, so it helps fertilize and nourish the soil for other plants to come.

When cut open, the okra pods produce a slimy mucus. Because of its slimy nature, okra was first used by white slave owners in the South to thicken soups. Thus, Créole gumbo, which itself is another name for okra, developed in Louisiana. Okra is also absolutely delicious fried— the crisp, battered exterior balances out the sliminess. It’s my favorite way to eat okra! Check out the Grandbaby Cakes recipe for this special treat. Pickled okra, unlike fried okra, has more crunch than slime. Here is a complete recipe for pickling and canning okra. Gumbo, fried okra, and pickled okra are all delicious Southern staples, but be sure to recognize this crop’s history when cooking and eating it.

Kate and Isabel