'Folks love okra or they hate it," Virginia Willis writes in the introduction to her cookbook "Okra," an entry in The University of North Carolina's estimable Savor the South series. "No one - veritably no one - is in the middle."
The reasons for loving okra are many. But almost all of the vegetable's detractors have the same complaint: Slime.
What looks like goop on the plate is actually a soluble digestive fiber that helps the okra plant retain water and germinate seeds. That mucilage also is what makes okra such an effective thickener in soups and stews. Still, since so many eaters consider it a turn-off, Willis' valuable book, from which a number of the following facts are drawn, includes 10 handy tips for slime reduction. Wary eaters are advised to cook small, whole pods uncovered at high heat, in the company of an acid such as tomatoes or lemon juice. But, "first and foremost," she writes, "don't overcook it."
Here, seven more things okra lovers and haters ought to know:
1. There are endless ways to prepare okra: The most popular okra recipes on the home cooking site Allrecipes.com include half a dozen gumbos; roasted okra; Grandma Oma's pickled okra; grilled okra; and pinkabet, a Filipino steamed vegetable dish. But as the Foodways volume of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture points out, okra's utility isn't confined to the kitchen: "Southerners have used it to staunch bleeding, substitute for plasma, make a coarse cloth or paper, adorn dried flower arrangements, produce seed necklaces, clean metal, unstop drains and increase milk yield of cows," Carolyn Kolb writes. "Raw okra will also adhere to the nose and forehead for a speedy Halloween mask."
2. It's unclear exactly where the first okra plants grew, but the origin point was probably in or near present-day Ethiopia. Okra then traveled to the Mediterranean and India, places where the vegetable remains a mainstay. Enslaved Africans were likely responsible for bringing okra seeds to the West Indies and Southeastern U.S.; Thomas Jefferson in 1785 noted it was thriving in Virginia.
3. According to modern folklore, drinking water in which okra ends have soaked overnight will eliminate the need for insulin shots. Although the remedy has circulated on social media, there is no evidence that okra is a cure for diabetes. But scientists are investigating whether okra's carbohydrates could help control blood sugar absorption. Claims that okra is high in vitamins K, C, A and B6; calcium; protein; and magnesium are uncontested.
4. Fearing that the team name "The Statesmen" wasn't sufficiently intimidating, Delta State University's baseball team in the 1980s rechristened themselves "The Fighting Okra," in honor of the tough vegetable. (Presumably the athletes meant no offense toward Mississippi State Rep. Walter Sillers Jr., who inspired the Statesman mascot.) The unofficial nickname has stuck.
5. The world record for okra plant height belongs to a Florida farmer, who grew a plant that measured nearly 20 feet tall. Even average okra plants routinely reach the 10-foot mark, which is why okra roots stretch out for 6 feet underground.
6. An okra pod is actually the ovary of the okra flower, a large white or yellow blossom that lasts for just one day. While okra pods are most commonly green, they come in shades of red and white too. The prominence of the pod's external ribs also differs by okra variety.
7. Okra pods are sometimes referred to as ladyfingers, an image that should guide you when okra shopping. Look for firm, slender, unblemished pods that measure no more than 4 inches in length.
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