Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ode to Okra

There are some things you have to grow up with to really appreciate. A lot of Appalachian food is like that. Catfish, for instance. A catfish is a bottom-feeder, swimming lazily through the silt in the Tennessee River for year after year after year, growing enormous and taking on a flavor like pond water. And I love it.

Catfish are best eaten battered and fried.

Moon Pies. Moon Pies come out of Chattanooga, the nearest city to my hometown of Dayton. They are made of two stale, crumbly biscuits sandwiching a wad of stiff marshmallow, and the whole thing is covered in a waxy frosting. The most popular flavors are chocolate, vanilla and banana. They're all gross, but sometimes I just get a craving for them, which is too bad, since I haven't found a store in Northern Virginia that sells them. The nearest thing to it is a chocolate generic version, available at H Mart, the big Asian supermarket.

A popular way to eat Moon Pies is battered and fried.

Fried pork rinds are another food that you have to grow up on. They are wads of fatty pork skin that have been deep fried and are puffed up and crunchy like a Cheeto. They are foul, salty and smelly, but sometimes I get that craving and have to go find a seedy gas station that sells them

Okra is the best example of foods that you have to be introduced to as a small child. Okra is a vegetable, a skinny pentagonal pod that tapers to a point at the end. It is covered with short soft hairs and is filled with tiny white seeds that pop when bitten into, releasing a bitter flavor. Even if this sounds completely unfamiliar to you, if you've ever eaten gumbo you've probably had a little okra without noticing.

Okra is, like most foods, best eaten battered and fried. But most people who didn't grow up in the Southeast had their first encounter with okra in its boiled form. Now, when you boil okra, it does a funny thing. Boiled okra is slimy. Not slimy like sushi, but slimy like a bowl of snot. Okra, when boiled, generates gobs of clear, mucous-like slime that oozes out in long, dripping strings when you bite into it.

Not a good experience for the uninitiate.

Okra can also be pickled. I avoided trying pickled okra for years, because I thought it would be a disappointment. I love sour and dill pickles and I love okra, but I hate sweet pickles and mushy okra and was afraid that I'd find I'd bought a jar of sweet okra mush. Not so! Pickled okra is crisp and sour and refreshing.

Okra's availability is limited in Northern Virginia. You can buy it frozen and boil it; you can buy it frozen and pre-breaded and try deep-frying it (I had no luck), or you can buy it pickled in jars. If you want it fresh and whole, it sometimes shows up in season at the chain grocery stores, but the place to find it reliably is at H Mart (what is up with that?). If you want it fried, Rocklands Barbeque has a great side of okra, with large, fresh-tasting chunks covered in a smooth and fluffy batter.

A quick internet search reveals that grits, another ubiquitous Appalachian food, can also be fried. Well, of course.

Don't leave without checking out this gorgeous image of an okra blossom from a photoblogger in western North Carolina.

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