Also known as lady’s fingers, gombo, gumbs, quingombo, okro, ochro, bamia, and quiabo, okra is considered by southerners to be a delicacy, in spite of its slippery quality. The poet James Dickey once told an interviewer, “If God had made anything better He’d have kept it for Himself.”
Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus and Hibiscus esculentus), a ribbed vegetable resembling the shape of a manicured lady’s finger, arrived in South Carolina at the end of the seventeenth century via the slave trade from Africa. It is doubtful that slaves were able to bring seeds over themselves. Rather, it is believed that ship captains transported the seeds and the African slaves devised the means for growing and cooking it.
The seed pod of a beautiful hibiscus and a member of the mallow family (as is cotton), okra likely originated in Ethiopia, moving from there to North Africa, the Middle East, Brazil, and India. Okra is an African word (nkruma in one Ghanaian language) and appears to have been used in South Carolina the way that the word “gumbo” (from the Angolan word ngombo) is used in Louisiana. Best picked when small and tender, when under an inch it can be eaten raw or cooked with its cap on. Larger than that, the cap should be sliced off high enough that the inner seeds do not spill out, then the pod sliced. Because of a tendency to mold, it is best used within a day or two of picking. Predominantly green, there are a variety of colors and shapes. Some have a fuzzy, unpleasant coating that can—and should—be removed by rubbing before washing. It is frequently seen pickled, but can be steamed, boiled, braised, and sautéed. Its mucilaginous quality is used to advantage when sliced and used to thicken stews (called gumbos in Louisiana and okra stews in South Carolina).
Randolph, Mary. The Virginia House-Wife. 1824. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984.
Rutledge, Sarah. The Carolina Housewife. 1847. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1979.
Schneider, Elizabeth. Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables: A Commonsense Guide. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.