Burnt Okra and Edible Memories

September  7, 2011

This is the fourth in a series of weekly farm reports from our own Tom Hirschfeld, complete with recipes, cooking and gardening tips, and wisdom dispensed.

Today: Tom on burnt okra and edible memories.

Burnt Okra and Potatoes

Shop the Story

Edible Memories

- Tom

I spent the better part of my first twenty-one years of life desperately wanting out of Indiana. I always imagined myself traveling the world taking photographs for National Geographic, working for Magnum photo agency, or hanging out with Karsh and Richard Avedon snapping society portraits of the super rich or famous.

So you can imagine my surprise when just out of college fate parachuted me into a small town in central Missouri to cut my teeth at a small circulation newspaper. A small town where the publisher was sleeping with the features editor, the city reporter was the mortician’s son, and the sheriff personally arrested the mayor on drunk driving charges. A novel waiting to happen, but when youth blinds you with the bright lights of bigger dreams, sometimes you just don’t see the whole story when it's a mere agitation of the fault line.
Besides, I was miserable. It was the kind of misery where you smoke too many roll-your-owns, read Heinrich Böll voraciously and fancy yourself a poet, all the while listening to way too much Suzanne Vega. I should have just put on the horsehair shirt and flogged myself.

I met Henry just prior to Thanksgiving weekend. He was a pit man, but mostly a chicken man, which mostly meant he specialized in smoked chicken. But this week he was specializing in smoked turkeys. After all, he was a business man. I took a couple of pics thinking it would make for a nice feature photo for the paper, then bought a smoked BBQ chicken with a couple of sides and headed home.
When cigarettes and black coffee have become your mainstays you usually aren’t that hungry, but at some point it catches up with you and suddenly you become insatiable. Usually it is the first taste of something that sets off the hunger and Henry’s chicken was the catalyst to a Hasselhoff frenzy (minus the boozy narration).
I am pretty sure Henry wasn’t at all surprised when I showed back up a couple of days later. Men like him can sense loneliness in a person like chickens can feel the wing beats of a hawk a hundred feet up. He knew I was running scared of my own shadow and, being a kind man, asked me to stay for Thanksgiving dinner. It was as much company for himself as it was for me, I soon realized as I graciously accepted.
He walked out to the road and pulled the chain across the entrance and hung it, draped, from one post to the other, effectively letting his customers know he was done for the day. I helped him clean up around the smoker, stacking hickory logs and doing whatever I could.

Okra plantokra flower

Even though the lot he was working nested an old cinderblock doughnut shop, his was a to-go business. He didn’t use the building for sit down diners but was instead using it as shelter. He had invited me into his home.
We sat down across from each other in the front booth so we had the window view. It was one of those orange linoleum-coated press board booths with the faux wood grained table. As we started to converse and learn about each other, out from his back pocket came a small bottle of Peach Schnapps, then from the window ledge he grabbed the two top glasses from a short stack of waxy coated Dixie cups. He set them onto the table and poured a round.
Henry soon got up and started to mill around the stove. I had wrongly made the assumption that we would be dining on the things he had made for his customers and hadn’t sold. Henry started pulling pans from the drawer beneath the oven and putting them on the stove.
What I didn’t realize was that Henry had been cooking all day. In the oven he had all the dishes he wanted to eat, like sweet potato casserole, green beans, greens, mashed potatoes and corn pudding, all baking away. He didn’t know how to cook for one though, so he had huge amounts of food, enough for two large families at least.
To finish his dinner he had one last dish to make on the stovetop: fried okra and potatoes. At the time I had no idea what okra was and, for me, it was an exotic dish of international provenance, but in reality, it was a fantastic dish full of Southern cultural heritage.
Mostly though, for me, it is an edible memory, a taste of a time in my life when things were much different and while this dish lacks the sex appeal of, say, Sookie Stackhouse it makes up for it by being Mississippi John Hurt. In other words, it is full of character, has stood the test of time and when you taste it it sings without regret as though it has lived.

pan-fried okraokra flower

Tom's Okra Tips

1. Okra is fairly drought tolerant and incredibly bug resistant which, for me, makes for a great August harvest when other plants are fizzling out.

2. Grow it from seed instead of starts. While it seems like forever before it gets very big, like all plants it grows exponentially, so soon enough it is huge. It will also be healthier and grow faster from seed.

3. If you don’t like the slime of okra then you need to do one of two things: cook it for a very long time, like in stews, or you need to brown it very deeply, which I call burnt okra and it is one of my favorite ways to eat it. When it is browned deeply it takes on a whole other flavor and is out of sight in succotash, these potatoes, or rice pilafs.

4. Okra flowers are very edible and nice to add to salads just remember the flowers turn into the okra so don’t pick them all.

5. Grow things in your garden for sentimental reasons. There is nothing better then being reminded of people, places, trips or a time in your life, when you see certain plants growing. In other words, surround yourself with edible memories.

Burnt Okra and Potatoes   

Burnt Okra with Sauteed Potatoes and Basil

Serves 4

Peanut oil
2 cups okra, sliced into 3/8-inch slices
2 cups russet potatoes, small dice (cut the potatoes just before sauteing them so they don’t turn gray. You want the starch on the potatoes, so don’t cut them early and soak them in water)
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
1 tablespoon basil, minced
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Want more life on the farm? See Tom's post from last week: Potlikker, Growing Greens and Swiss Chard Panade.



See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • gluttonforlife
  • ctgal
  • wssmom
  • SleepyG
  • Burnt Offerings
    Burnt Offerings
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


gluttonforlife October 1, 2011
I love okra so much, and am sad that we don't be able to grow it where we are--too wet? not enough heat? It's a classic in Indian cuisine and is delicious fried crisp with fresh curry leaves. Thanks for the beautiful photos and boost for the much-maligned ladyfinger.
ctgal September 18, 2011
Tom, thank you, thank you! I've gotten piles of okra from my CSA and was running out of ideas. Along comes your story and recipe, and I made it for dinner, along with a kale fritata. Perfection!!! It was delicious, and I liked it even better than fried okra, or any creole dish I could create. I am sending it to my CSA website, crediting you, of course, so all the members can try it. And, by the way, your writing and storytelling is able to bring me right to the scene you are creating. If I were still teaching English, I would have you as a special guest to talk about creative writing. A+++
Thank you!
wssmom September 14, 2011
This is, as always, just lovely.
SleepyG September 14, 2011
Why did this post make me want to cry? And write. And kiss my babies. And be young again. Can't believe this is my first discovery of you, Tom. Mos Def Hooked. Thanks for making my coffee taste better.
Burnt O. September 12, 2011
I keep a little folder on my desktop for articles, items, columns, essays, etc., that I don't have time to just skim over, and that I want to make sure that I read thoroughly because they deserve my full attention. Much the same way I DVR special shows and documentaries so I can enjoy them without interruption at a later date. Your column goes straight to the folder every week so I can savor it slowly and enjoy it fully. I look forward to that time and this has become a weekly highlight.
joan1028 September 11, 2011
Made this tonight w/ the best okra that could be found in Michigan grocery stores and it is a delicious change for cooking okra....might add a little onion next time. The basil adds an interesting touch of flavor. Definitely a "keeper".
petitbleu September 11, 2011
Okra has much to recommend it. Frugality, hardiness, and nostalgia for pretty much anyone who grew up in the South or Midwest. There are precious few recipes for it, and it has never been en vogue, but it occupies an important place in my culinary heritage. Thanks for the excellent writing and a truly good, simple recipe.
goodsensehealth September 11, 2011
Tom Hirschfeld, I'm in love with you and your writing. Indeed, edible memories are the tastiest of both worlds - people and food. Bravo to you and thank you for sharing your musings.
dancing K. September 11, 2011
IN to MO, an interesting transition. The story was beautifully told. I've recently made the transition from IN to CA...I'm beginning to feel I'm not in a foreign land anymore. Thanks for the story and recipe.
boulangere September 11, 2011
Envy you your Oceanside. I made the transition from CA to MT about 3 years ago. A little rough. I'm finally growing to appreciate the trade-off of mountains and ocean for big sky. Still miss the produce, though.
Theodelinde September 11, 2011
Such fun, your story. Well written. We want it to go on ...a new form: the food novel!
I live in Paris where the food zoo/alphabet/taste pleasures are abundant. Okra is not but
I've had okra soup in NY and loved it.
Thanks for sharing the fun of you talents.
jwlucas September 11, 2011
Making this tonight with dinner. Okra is not as plentiful as it was at Raleigh-area markets, and the price is inching back up, but we've got a nice bowlful that is dedicated to this.
5280cook September 11, 2011
Being a south Texas girl, I grew up on fried okra. There is just nothing better and more addictive. I now live in Colorado and find that not only is okra pretty hard to find but a bit expensive when it is available. When I do run across some, I love to pick out the smaller pieces and saute them whole in a little oil with some onion until they are soft and brown. I then throw in some crushed garlic, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper and cook for another moment or two. Sprinkle the finished dish with some chopped fresh cilantro and you have a great low slime side dish that this okra lover can't get enough of. I had no idea that okra flowers are so beautiful. I'd love to have a few of those for my salad. Your dish looks delicious. I will be trying it soon.
unoynot September 11, 2011
Okra is a fascinating plant to grow, striking and unusual in a Nebraska garden. I would plant it just for the blooms, so the okra itself is a bonus. What a juicy, rich story you have shared, I could imagine the tantalizing fragrance from the smoker. The recipe is most tempting, can't wait to find some okra. Thank you.
Tracy September 11, 2011
I guess I really really liked it ;)
Tracy September 11, 2011
Great piece--can't wait to try the recipe
Tracy September 11, 2011
Great piece, and can't wait to try the recipe!
vvvanessa September 11, 2011
tip number 5 is brilliant. it should be etched in stone and placed in every garden.
Teri September 8, 2011
Oops, meant fried okra. Sorry!
Teri September 8, 2011
I grew up eating fried orka like other people eat popcorn or potato chips. A couple of years ago, my dad's okra crop grew past the eaves on the house. You've made me incredibly hungry. Thanks for a grown-up version.

Also, if you don't want your okra slimy, do what Ella Brennan does. Saute it first in a little oil, to give it a little crust. Then dump it in your gumbo.
thirschfeld September 8, 2011
If anyone would know it would be Ella.
Fairmount_market September 8, 2011
What gorgeous pictures and a great article.
thirschfeld September 8, 2011
thanks Farimount_market