Laura Paige Penkert, an MS/MPH candidate at Tufts Friedman School and Tufts Public Health Program, tracks the history of okra back to its roots in slavery.
In the sticky heat of a Southern summer, you will often see farmers and gardeners alike harvesting the bright green pods of the okra plant. In my home state of South Carolina, you can find okra pickled, stewed with tomatoes, grilled, roasted, and, most commonly, in a rich bowl of gumbo. I grew up planting and eating a not-so-spineless variety called Clemson Spineless, which references the college town just 30 minutes from my own home. While okra is grown widely in the South, it is not native to the United States. However, it is indigenous to many other parts of the World, including Western Africa and South East Asia. As I began to recognize the history of okra’s journey to the South, I was forced to reckon with the complexity, brutality, and appropriation that often exist in Southern foodways. Moreover, exploring the origins of Southern cuisine deepened my connection to the food I grew up eating and instilled a greater appreciation for the cultures that created it.
Nobody truly knows where okra first appeared. Scientists believe the cultivation of the okra plant began as early as 12th century BC in Ethiopia. The plant most likely made it to the Southern United States with the beginnings of the slave trade in the 1500s. Okra, like rice, was one of the few crops slaves were able to bring with them from their communities in Western Africa. Food justice activist Leah Penniman describes her ancestors gathering millet, black rice, okra, and other seeds and braiding them into their children’s hair to provide them with an inheritance in an unknown land.
Upon arrival to ports scattered across the American South, enslaved workers from many different Western African Nations began to make okra dishes – drawing on the cuisines and recipes of their homelands. Okra became a mainstay of their personal gardens, providing extra sustenance when food was forcibly limited by slaveholders. Michael Twitty, a culinary historian, once wrote, “In mainland North America, okra was one of the ultimate symbols of the establishment of the enslaved community as a culinary outpost of West Africa.” The cultivation of the okra plant on Southern soil carried on ancient Western African culinary and agricultural traditions.
Yet culinary traditions do not often remain stagnant. Traditions change and adapt in response to pressures and the agroecology of a particular time and place. Across Western Africa, you can find okra featured in various soups and stews where the mucilaginous plant plays the role of a roux – providing thickness to an assemblage of vegetables and protein. Variations of Western African okra dishes became Louisiana’s roux gumbo, South Carolina and Georgia’s rouxless gumbo, and Maryland’s crab gumbo. Other dishes like fried okra and stewed okra with tomatoes soon became a hallmark of African American and, subsequently, Southern cuisine.
The popularity and spread of okra dishes have a lot to do with its agricultural viability. Okra proliferates in tropical and subtropical climates. It thrives in the South where summer begins early, and the frost comes late. Okra also grows quickly. A well-pruned plant can grow to over 6 feet tall and produce up to 20 pods per plant per week. In addition to food, the oily seeds of the okra plant were used historically as beads or roasted as a coffee substitute. One former slave said, “sometimes corn and okra seeds was parched right brown and ground up to be used for coffee, but it warn’t nigh as good as sho ‘nough coffee.” Coffee substitutes made of prolific plants like corn and okra became a part of an enslaved peoples’ daily rituals. The plant’s versatility and history made the plant a mainstay of Southern cuisine.
Okra is a vegetable that, as Twitty and others argued, sustained an enslaved race. That history typifies southern cuisine — it’s one born of conflict and subjugation. Yet perhaps because of this dark history, okra forms the foundation of southern comfort food. Much of our food today came from conflicted spaces and subjugated people – recognizing these histories helps deepen the connection between people and their food.
Laura Paige Penkert is an MS/MPH candidate at Tufts Friedman School and Tufts Public Health Program, where she studies the impact of agriculture and food policy on health. In her spare time, she enjoys reading food writing of all kinds, running, and gardening in her neighborhood plot.