From Around the World: Pickled Okra

Okra travels around the world (and me too)

I am standing in April McGreger’s kitchen and holding a “Hot Chili Pickled Okra” in my hands. I am perplexed by its somehow hairy, almost rough skin, which reminds me of soft stubbles on a newly shaved chin. The pod looks much like a light green chili pepper, but it is shorter, sturdier. The end is also pointed, but rather rounded, and the whole crop has a somehow angular shape. I bite off the stem and look at the cross-section. It looks like one of those kaleidoscopic looking glasses that you can turn, look through, and little gemstones will reflect the light to form miraculous patterns. I cannot see colorful light reflections when looking into the pentagonal cross-section of the Okra; but between the small, white ivory-colored seeds that look like pearls huddling together in the five tunnels, I can see the astonishing personality of an underestimated crop.11.okra crossHow did I get around to eating this southern pickle in this southern kitchen?

1.Okra out of jar
Removing an Okra pickle from its natural environment…

I grew up in Tübingen, a small town in the south of Germany. I first came across the name “Okra” at a food market in Berlin. I loved the sound of it; the soft, round “o” followed by the hard con-sonants, finished with an open “a” that made it sound strange and promising at the same time. My sister described its texture as “crunchy and somehow slimy” – I was fascinated. Being a pro-fessional chef well acquainted with the secrets of classical French, Italian and Southern German cuisine, she could fill lectures, talking about whatever strange and bizarre delicacy comes across her plate. After years of culinary experiences, she can go on forever musing about imbibing perfectly prepared dishes, making it sound like the most sensual and satisfying acts of love. I could not imagine how strange a food had to be that she would say so little about it. But these unremarkable pods were exotic, even to her.

Around two years later, on a sunny Friday afternoon at the end of August, I biked to April’s home, which lies snug as garlic cloves between spears of pickled Okras, somewhere between Carrboro and Hillsborough. The ride along sunlit, golden fields and thick, dark green woods made me think of Tübingen, which also lies snug in a valley, like Okras in a jar, surrounded by mountains. The citizens of my picturesque and homey birthplace approach pretentiousness with their obnoxious concern for the environment and healthy, organic food. In this regard, the streets, the walls of the old, timber-framed houses, and the minds of some of those people might seem almost as narrow as the tunnels under the Okra’s husk. I always felt that I needed more space and when I finally had the chance to study abroad in the U.S., I hoped to experience the ultimate vastness of a country where everything is startlingly huge: houses, cars, juice bottles on supermarket shelves, trees, people…While I approached April’s house, I had all the wary voices of scholars, family members, and friends in my head who had, without solicitation, elaborated to me their obliterating prejudices about globularly rotund, ignorant, and (especially in the South) uncomfortably patriotic Americans, and their processed, fatty, deleterious American food.

But perhaps things aren’t always as they seem and first looks might be deceiving.

What is in a Jar?

April and I sat in the backyard. In front of us gathered several jars from her independent brand “The Farmer’s Daughter,” filled with a colorful variety of wondrous greens, beets, and pods. April looked neither ignorant nor conspicuously round, but friendly and vigorous. While she talked about southern agriculture, gastronomy, pickles, and their European ancestry, I saw no signs of the horrifyingly mind-dulling effects of convenient mass produced foods. Maybe eating in the South was, after all, more than a tedious necessity and not merely the everyday symptom of an over-consumed surplus society.

A peek at the immense variety of southern pickles and their creator, April McGreger. Copyright: Lissa Gotwals, 2013

April is in fact a farmer’s daughter. Witnessing how her father and brother, both conventional farmers, suffered from the globalized agricultural market system, she feels what people eat is often a political statement. At the Carrboro farmer’s market she found a community that appreciated and needed her greatest talent: preparing food. When cooking, she had always felt like the work mattered more to her than to anyone else, the kitchen was her natural environment.

Southern cuisine does not flinch from pickling anything: cucumbers, beets, collards, peaches, sunchokes, watermelon, eggs. Relatively speaking, pickled okra sounds pretty obvious. “The South has developed a sweet taste”, says April. Since it was easily available and more convenient to preserve vegetables with it in the hot weather, southern housewives used sugar for their pickles. April, on the other hand, sticks to the European way and pickles her vegetables by soaking them in brine that contains no sugar or vinegar, but 35 to 50 grams of salt (hinting at the metric origin of the recipe that is usually used for sauerkraut). In Northern Europe, cabbage is harvested in a chilly fall, and in this cold, salty environment, lactic bacteria find the perfect condition to digest the sugar in the crop and to produce acid that helps to keep it fresh. The bacteria in the vegetable are so effective that they can even transform a spoiled cabbage into healthy, nutritious sauerkraut.


10.cutting okra 2
Cutting Okra for the salad

April reminds me of my sister in how she values traditional, homemade cooking. When my sister and I cook together, I am the menial laborer, admiring her culinary masterpieces. Although we use pickles and sauerkraut in many recipes, she never showed me how to pickle anything, let alone Okra. Her most beloved kitchen bibles do not even mention Okra. It can’t grow in Central Europe.

The Okra plant is not native to the South either, but it luxuriates here. It is a timid vegetable, small, plain, and easy to overlook on the bush that has the same lush, emerald color. It is adorable. I learned to love it, as much as I love Chapel Hill, and as much as I (admittedly) love my hometown. I am not the first Okra devotee; in fact, some say that the love of West African women brought it to the Americas. They smuggled it in their hair when they were uprooted and shipped over the Atlantic by white men to become enslaved and sent to cultivate crops like Okra[1]. I myself never harvested Okra, but I’ve been told, it’s backbreaking work, because the plant is awfully itchy (in a way that stings and burns). I can imagine the intricate history of the pickle that is, like so many things, more than what it seemed at first look.

I try not to be narrow-minded or mouthed and not to believe in prejudices. I try even the weirdest culinary kinkiness with my own taste buds before I judge it. My sister taught me to explore the world through the palate and the belly. When we Skype, we become absorbed in analyzing southern food: I am now an expert in the different levels of hot sauce that are integral parts of every table setting, and we’re still uncertain if my metabolism will ever get over that piece of fried cheesecake I had at the state fair. Wistfully thinking about our mother’s home-made sourdough bread, I describe the sad, floppy sponges that are advertised as buns. But in the next moment, I wonder why we are so uncreative when it comes to pickling. The whimsical ways of southern cooking and eating are by no means less rich and original than the Southern German cuisine I grew up with.

Jossi kochend
My sister at work.

While we compare Europe to the U.S. and my hometown to Chapel Hill, my southern friends hand me french fries from Bojangle’s. Are they examples of the perilous, yet alluring cultural abnormalities that are packed in never ever decomposing Styrofoam boxes and exported all around the globe, helping America to earn a reputation of wastefulness and massiveness? Maybe. But the other day, when I absentmindedly chewed on a fatty fried pickle, I reminded myself of the grease-dripping pig feet that, on some Sundays, vanished down my uncle’s throat, washed down with a gallon of beer at very southern German restaurants.

Scratching the surface, the world becomes a much smaller circle.

I find the familiar strange and the strange surprisingly familiar, and I realize that humans remain human, no matter where I go. April, for example, has this down-to-earth way of talking like my sister that makes me feel, despite everything, that life can be simple and satisfying – just like typically southern German potato salad, made with vinegar, and pickled cucumber. Having finally escaped the narrow coziness of my hometown, it looks like I have to move from merely being a kitchenhand to throwing spices and ingredients in my pots autonomously. I start by experimenting with Okra pickles as replacement for cucumbers in the potato salad. I feel like Okra, in this vast, strange and yet so familiar southern environment, I find comfortable conditions to grow.

3.another chillin okra
Hot Chilli(ng) Okra, after its journey into, and out of the jar.

I look at April and the pod in my hand. I like them both: the plant that is not native and yet feels itself at home in the South, and the southerner who pickled it and reminds me in many ways of my European roots. I smell the aroma of coriander, garlic and other spices from countries around the world. I move the Okra around my tongue, taste the crisp green of the crop and the sour-salty brine that weeps down my throat, and feel the surprising crunch. I catch a glimpse of all the places that shape and create the South by looking through the cross-section of the little Okra pickle in my hand, before I devour the rest with great relish and purse my lips with pleasure.

*Potato salad with Okra made in the style of the Southern German region “Schwaben”

[1] Elizabeth M. Williams, New Orleans: A Food Biography, (Plymouth: AltaMira Press, 2013), 1-22.