Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus) is a member of the mallow family, relished for its mucilaginous pods that thicken soups and stews. When picked young, it also serves as a crispy vegetable. Okra was brought to the Western Hemisphere by means of the slave trade and probably arrived in British North America through its cultural and trade relations with the Caribbean. It was a common garden crop in many of the societies along the West and Central African coast and known as kanja among the Wolof, nkru among the Twi speakers in what is now Ghana, okwuru (the etymological root for “okra”) among the Igbo, and quingumbo (from which “gumbo” is derived) among the Mbundu of Angola. The English captain Hugh Crow (1765–1829) noted in 1792 that at the port of Bonny and throughout West Africa, there was no want of “ocra” and that it was “well known throughout the West Indies as an ingredient in making soup.” The zoologist, Joachim Monteiro (1833–1878), writing about 19th-century Angola, described okra under cultivation and reported it being sold at markets. Okra was not only valued for its pods but also for its edible leaves and seeds. It was used as a medicinal plant, especially to ease the birthing process. Okra was documented by Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) in Jamaica in the late 17th century and was noted by Peter Kalm (1716–1779) in Philadelphia in the 1740s where he found it growing in city gardens, writing that it was “reckoned a dainty … especially by the Negroes.” References to okra are scant in the mid-18th century, but by 1781, Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) noted in his Notes on the State of Virginia that “ochra” was one of Virginia's garden crops. In the same decade, Luigi Castiglioni (1756–1832) noted that in Carolina Low Country blacks cultivated a plant “brought by Negroes from the west coast of Africa and is called okra by them.” The okra that Kalm, Jefferson, and Castiglioni described being eaten was probably a variety resembling the heirlooms known as “Cowhorn” and “Stubby” as well as white and red varieties of the plant.
Okra made its debut in a cookbook with the 1824 publication of The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph (1762–1828). Given her instruction to make “ochra soup” in an earthenware pipkin, the dish appears to originate in some of the earliest black communities in the colonial Chesapeake and Low Country. Randolph included okra in several recipes—as a soup, stewed with butter, and stewed with tomatoes. Other period recipes suggest that enslaved African Americans and other blacks introduced whites of all classes to okra mixed with rice, later known as Limpin' Susan, which is the cousin dish of Hoppin' John, fried okra, and a variety of okra stews made with fish and crab, akin to recipes found along the Rice and Gold Coasts of West Africa. Cookbooks from Maryland to Louisiana provide dozens of recipes calling for the vegetable.
Enslaved blacks also sold roasted and ground okra seed as a coffee substitute as late as the Civil War. Perhaps the most important dish made with okra was gumbo, a rich stew made with a flour thickener called a roux in the French tradition in Louisiana and along the Tidewater and Low Country coasts. Okra gumbos typically omit filé powder, made from pulverized sassafras leaves, which are a contribution of the Choctaw Indians.
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