Southern Voice: Erin McAnally Utley
On a sunny Friday morning in Venice Beach this past summer, locals gathered around the weekly farmer’s market to buy for the weekend. My in-laws live just down the road, and so I find myself there quite often when visiting, slowly walking and gawking at the myriad of mushroom, vegetable and fruit offerings we don’t see at a Tennessee farmer’s market. No doubt, California is a land of plenty, and it is inspiring to see what comes from the ground there. Simply walking from tent to tent is a veritable history, agricultural and cooking lesson (and some of the most amazing people watching around).
While perusing the grand selection of fresh herbs in a crowded tent, I noticed a woman next to me holding a handful of okra as if she’d found some valuable gems in a pile of dirty clothes. She was wide-eyed and searching it wildly for some self-explanation of what they might be. I smiled and opened my mouth to speak to her when another woman swept in and boldly exclaimed, “It is called Okra. It comes from the South, and they ONLY eat it fried.”
She spoke with such absurd and dismissive authority that I was taken aback. I looked at the ground and shook my head to myself in confusion, nearly chuckling aloud at the ludicrous assertion. I wanted to correct her immediately but my mind went wild trying to pick the ways that I might could convince the woman that she ought not be discouraged from trying it by this crazy lady (who clearly had no idea what she was talking about).
I thought of the generations of family and friends-like-family that have made delicious, fiery gumbo with okra as a key ingredient. I thought about the fact that okra hails from the African continent and has made its way around the world to so many amazing cooking traditions from the Middle East to Asia. I thought about a long ago Halloween night in Dupont Circle in my early 20s eating the most delicious Lebanese roasted Okra in a hotel room all by myself. I reflected on the fact that just down the road, I was staying in a house with my mother-in-law, who — just like me — comes from Alabama and how we buy okra at this very farmer’s market and we grill it with no oil or seasoning because it perfect just the way it is. I thought about the fact that one of my favorite steak houses in the world (Sperry’s) is mostly one of my favorites because they still serve pickled okra on the 1970’s, copper top salad bar. And yes, I did think of my great-grandmother’s kitchen in North Mississippi when I was young, listening to the mysterious sounds of finely chopped, homegrown okra frying in a decades-old cast-iron skillet.
To boil it down to its core, I thought to myself, Someone has got to stop this lady from talking crazy.
“I thought of the generations of family and friends-like-family that have made delicious, fiery gumbo with okra as a key ingredient.”
While obviously I think this moment is hilarious in one sense, I also wound up taking it seriously as well. To label okra as Southern, to say it is only consumed by Southerners and only when it is fried, is not only obviously a misnomer, it is utterly disappointing. It is, quite frankly, misinformation. Misappropriating a food solely to one culture and then insulting that culture’s supposed consumption method is not only preposterous but gets at the core of so many misunderstandings in the world. It is a reminder of how disruptive the spread of false information can be because as silly as it may seem, the woman put the handful of gorgeous summer okra back and walked away, potentially never to know the myriad of amazing uses for the vegetable. She now potentially will not know the joys of pickled okra on a chilled salad plate, a stew perfectly thickened with its viscous filling, or the crunch of a dried and slightly salted pod. And the thing is (let’s be perfectly honest), it is freaking delicious when it is fried.
This fleeting moment with two strangers in a tent, who didn’t even know I was there, left me with a stark reminder to listen and to learn and to keep my opinions to myself if I’m not certain of something, and to do this especially if what I say might influence someone to avoid trying something new that they might love. While I’m certainly no okra expert myself (though in my humble opinion, that would be an awesome thing to be), if I had it to do over again, I might have spoken up and offered my experience and personal knowledge of okra to at least encourage the woman to give it a try.
I did take the opportunity to scoop up the handful of lonely okra she abandoned and march it back down the street to throw on the grill …
Erin McAnally Utley is a writer (prose and song) and consultant living in Nashville and Los Angeles. She spends her time writing copy, developing and teaching classes for artist empowerment, creating marketing plans and producing events. See one of her recent collaborations with pop artist Athena and recently published essay.
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