Okra’s Powerful Secret Beginnings

Paintings in this post are by Kevin Chadwick.


It was a daring move on the part of those captured in West Africa to secretly bring reminders, such as okra, of their homeland with them aboard ship. Their bravery is beyond comprehension when one thinks of the punishments they could receive should they be caught. Nevertheless, many courageous souls succeeded in smuggling in their beloved keepsake vegetable seeds.   Okra was one of their most precious seeds and carries with it thousands of years of history. Most agree it had its early beginnings in equatorial Africa and made its way to our shores during the slave trade.

The Okra in Her Hair

The captives were anxious to have reminders of their homeland and managed to hide the okra seeds in their hair and smuggle them aboard the ships.


Artist Kevin Chadwick



Once they arrived in America, they planted the seeds outside their cabins along with sweet potatoes, watermelon, and their beloved black-eyed peas. 

Willis okra


Miss Dora from Broomfield and Her Famed Okra Soup

One of my favorite memories from my early days living at the far end of Lady’s Island near Beaufort, S.C. in the historic Arthur Barnwell house was porch time with Miss Dora. Dora was about as Gullah as one could be who lived along the Broomfield Road in a white clapboard house by the entrance to Pleasant Point Plantation. Her front door was painted haint blue to ward off any evil spirits. We formed an almost immediate friendship when we first moved there and I met her and later hired her to help with parties and events held during golf tournaments and special occasions. She was a natural who required very little training for the job.  Her wide smile and genuine laughter captured the hearts of all who met her.

Artist Kevin Chadwick

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A Big Surprise

What a great surprise to find out she was a good cook. It was a lazy summer afternoon when she walked up on the porch with a container of fresh Okra Soup.  She stood all of about 5 feet tall, a proud woman I’d often seen on the road each Sunday hitchhiking to church.  She’d be wearing a large, wide-brimmed hat decorated with flowers with matching shoes and handbag. “Here, Miss Pat, –   okra soup,” she said with a great smile.

Down through the ages, I believe okra has proven to be one of Africa’s greatest gifts to New World cooking.

Made Gullah Style

I invited her to pull up a front porch wicker rocker and sit a spell. I retrieved some small bowls from the kitchen along with a couple of spoons and sat down to share this delicacy from her garden.  The freshness of the okra came through making this one of the most delicious soups ever.  Several times since that day I have tried to duplicate it, but it’s never been quite the same.  Hers was made Gullah style and that’s with a whole heap ’o love.


Famed Chef BJ Dennis

I have since learned that okra can be harvested in the South right up until Thanksgiving.  With a little help from famed Gullah chef B.J. Dennis, I learned the ingredients in her soup were much like his –  listed below.  B.J. is one who grew up on okra soup made by his grandmother on Daniel Island before Daniel Island had a bridge. 


Sometimes Dora would toss a little crabmeat into it and sometimes not, just depending on what she had on hand. BJ calls this soup “gumbo’s Lowcountry cousin.” He tells me that this soup is rarely served in the high-end restaurants of Charleston, but can often be found in affordable luncheonettes and of course in the homes of okra lovers everywhere.


                                                                                                                                                        Okra Soup

1 pound fresh okra

1/2 pound smoked meat, turkey or pork1

2 pounds fresh tomatoes, diced or one 28-ounce can diced tomatoes

5 cloves garlic

1 hot pepper

1 bay leaf

3-4 sprigs thyme

1 small onion

1/2 pound butterbeans, shelled

salt to taste

1/2 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined

If using smoked meat, add it to the pot with tomato, garlic, hot pepper, bay leaf, and thyme.  Pour water over the meat to just cover.  Cook over medium-high heat until meat is tender.

Slice okra into half-inch pieces.  Dice onion,  Add okra, butterbeans, and onions to the pot.  Cook until okra is tender, about 10-15 minutes.

Salt shrimp and add to the pot.  Cook shrimp for 2-3 minutes.  Salt to state throughout the cooking process.  Serve with rice.

Virginia Willis presents her beloved Southern pickled okra.

No story on okra would be complete without a word from the popular chef, Virginia Willis.

Award-winning chef and cookbook author Virginia Willis is one of the most popular and respected voices on Southern cooking. She is the author of an entire book on okra: Okra: a Savor the South cookbook.  Featuring gardening tips, a discussion of heirloom varieties, and expert cooking directions, Okra brilliantly showcases fifty delectable recipes. “I wanted to write about it, because, as I say in the very first sentence of the book, okra is a contentious vegetable.  Folks love it or hate it.  There are very few people in the middle.”

Puttin’ Up

Virginia says “there’s something amazingly satisfying about puttin’ up. The feeling of seeing an array of colorful jars cooling on a window sill, lit by sunbeams and glowing like stained glass, is pure joy.  I love the pungent aroma of vinegar simmering with warm spices.  I grin every single time I hear the “pop” of a lid dimpling down on a cooling jar, the audible sign of a successful seal.”

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With okra at its summertime peak right now you may want to seal some of this goodness in jars. Small jars of pickled okra make wonderful gifts for friends and neighbors.  Virginia tells us exactly how to do it.

Spicy Pickled Okra 

2 pounds medium okra pods

4 small dried chiles

2 teaspoon yellow mustard seed

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

8 cloves garlic peeled

4 cups distilled white vinegar

2 cups water

2 tablespoons pickling salt

Wash the okra and trim the stems to 1/2 inch.  Place 1 chile. 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed, 1/4 teaspoon peppercorns, and 2 cloves of garlic in the bottom of each of 4 sterilized pint-sized canning jars.  Divide the okra evenly among the jars, placing the pods vertically, alternating stems up and down.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil.  Carefully pour boiling mixture over the okra in the jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headroom between the top of the liquid and the lid.  Seal the lids.

Process the jars in a boiling-water canner for 15 minutes.  Store the unopened jars at room temperature for up to 1 year.  Once the jars are opened, store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.  


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