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