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OKRA ~~ A Totally Exaggerated Family Tale
by Edward V. Folkes

While eating fried okra delicacies from a bandana basket as if the okra morsels were French fries, Uncle Carl meandered around the grounds of Aunt Effie Lee's homestead, making polite conversation. For as long as I could remember, Uncle Carl's particular liking for fried okra left only the shiny bottom of a very large green platter before Reverend Johnson paused to say grace.

My momma said we just had to have more patience with Uncle Carl.

"You children, especially you older boys, must take more responsibility. The young ones will imitate your behavior. So, I don't want any of you to be mean to Uncle Carl. You know heís not right, poor thing. Remember, he spent a good part of his life recovering from the perpetual vapors down in Florida at Chattahoochee, the state hospital. I do not want to see a repetition of last year's prank. Do I make myself clear?"

Momma was crystal clear about last yearís prank.

With all due respect to my momma, telling us to have more patience didn't persuade Uncle Carl to leave us any okra. Although we understood he wasn't quite right, we didnít think that made it right for him to eat it all.

That last year Momma was talking about, Cousin Carolyn and her twin brother Gray were fourteen. They had come down to our house from Richmond two or three days ahead of the reunion. This gave Momma time to visit with her sister and gave us children time to plot.

I was fifteen at the time. I don't think we kids were particularly mean, but we did have a well-developed sense of mischief. We had been wandering around the mall when we saw the can in a window of The Gourmet Shop. In the can was a Mexican delicacy. I bought three cans--the contents filled up the green platter pretty well.

Now, how bad was that?

Uncle Carl never found out he was eating breaded and fried grasshopper pieces. In fact, he said the okra had a very unusual taste, and he believed he had enough for now.

Well, it wasn't as if Uncle Carl was an invalid or anything.

On the other hand, the grasshopper incident seemed to do the trick.

Although Uncle Carl wasn't a blood relative, he was an old childhood friend of Aunt Effie Leeís. Her farm, down on the Withlacoochee, was a welcome respite when the rigors of Tallahassee life closed in on him.

Now when Effie Lee passed on six months ago, she made Momma promise to invite Uncle Carl to this year's reunion. Momma would have anyhow, knowing my momma. In fact Momma said that Uncle Carl would be welcome to stay on the place as often as he felt the need. It was quite clear that we children were not to torture Uncle Carl with anything, including fried grasshoppers.

But this year was different.

Uncle Carl looked over the vast table of food when he arrived on the farm, just as he always had, but he didn't touch the okra. From somewhere, he produced a package of sunflower seeds, and as he wandered around the homestead making polite conversation as always, he snacked happily.

My cousins and I ate all the okra we could hold, and later that afternoon I told Momma that the only thing any better would have been okra and stewed tomato sandwiches. Would she fix some? But she just laughed and said I had been listening to too much of that Brother Dave Gardner.

What do you suppose the good brother Dave said?

"Stewed tomato and okra sandwiches," said brother Dave Gardner, "must be eaten quickly less it falls through the crust."

Brother Dave Gardner, circa 1958, would forever change the way I viewed okra and stewed tomatoes. I don't think I have ever seen the dish on a menu or sat down to a reunion dinner or church social or ordered up vegetables at one of the fine country cooking restaurants in Montgomery, Alabama, that I don't chuckle over Brother Daveís rendition of how to eat okra and stewed tomato sandwiches.

A non-sandwich recipe for "Okra with Stewed Tomatoes and Peppers" can be found at SouthernFood.com.

The recipe uses:
~~~a pound of okra
~~~one can of stewed tomatoes
~~~one green pepper chopped
~~~ three tablespoons of fresh chopped onions.

Put these ingredients together in a pot to cook for approximately fifteen minutes. (You may want to boil the okra first for five minutes, then drain and add the other ingredients.) For more of a pure okra taste, I would leave out the green pepper.

The Auburn Cookbook, October 1980, published by the Alabama Extension Service, Auburn University, has a very traditional fried okra recipe. The recipe instructs: ďAfter washing and draining the okra, slice it crosswise. Season with salt and pepper; roll in flour or cornmeal. Fry in a small amount of fat until crisp and brown. Drain on absorbent paper. Two pounds will serve eight.Ē

Remember always to use a liberal amount of pepper sauce.


Edward V. Folkes, Jr., a native Floridian, lives and works in Tampa, Florida. He writes, "The deep roots of the South are here in Tampa, but certainly have been diluted over the years. I was raised in a small, rural town, Dade City, Florida, about thirty miles north of Tampa, that I consider more 'cracker' country. Its institutions and society were certainly more deeply rooted in the Old South. I have family in both Virginia and Alabama, and thoroughly enjoy the connection and continuing experience of my heritage."

Write Edward V. Folkes at Edís E-mail.


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