By Gina Malone
Three years of research, trials and early morning writing sessions have netted Chris Smith the prestigious James Beard Award for 2020 in the category of Reference, History, and Scholarship for his book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration (2019). Smith is the executive director of a new nonprofit, The Utopian Seed Project.
In 2016, he gave a presentation titled “In Defense of Okra” at the Organic Growers School Spring Conference. An editor from Chelsea Green Publishing happened to be in the audience for Smith’s talk and suggested afterward that okra might be a good subject for a book. “That was the launching point for a three-year deep dive into okra research and writing which culminated in this book,” Smith says.
The unusual wedding gift of an okra pod with seeds intact had set Smith—from England, where okra is not a thing—off on his journey. “I grew up in a green-thumbed family, but didn’t fully embrace those roots until moving to America in 2012, when I developed some deep concerns about the American food system,” Smith says. He had come to America to marry Belle Crawford, a South Carolinian who knew all about okra. Another wedding gift the couple received, a gift certificate to Sow True Seed, was the introduction Smith needed to become a garden photographer and then community coordinator for the Asheville business. “On reflection,” he says, “it’s all a little unbelievable,” the “serendipitous events that lined up to land me in this moment.”
He had no idea what the James Beard judges would be looking for when they narrowed the book entries to three semi-finalists. “My book is well researched, but certainly not scholarly in the traditional sense of that word,” he says. “Belle had been supportive throughout, all the way up until the morning of the award announcements when she said, ‘I just looked up the other books and I’m not sure you’ve got this anymore,’” he says. “About five minutes after that statement, the press release went out announcing the winners, and stunned silence ensued.”
He borrowed the title of that fateful presentation for the working title of his book and stands by the premise of being an advocate for okra. “I one hundred percent want this book to convert okra doubters to okra lovers,” he says.
The Whole Okra contains information about health benefits and tips for growing okra as well as uses—including many recipes—for the pods as well as the rest of the plant. “There were so many surprising things I learned about okra,” Smith says, “which is part of the magic of this plant.”
Smith has described himself as an “expert okra enthusiast” rather than an expert on okra. “The award is an external stamp of approval that says I created something good,” he says, “and while one shouldn’t need such things to feel good, it does feel good! I think so far most people interested in the book already love okra; it has appealed to that wonderful demographic, the okra lovers. But this award lets people know that this is a good book to read—not just a book about okra.”
To obtain a signed copy of The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration, contact Smith via Instagram @blueandyellowmakes or Facebook @blueandyellowmakes. Copies are also available from Sow Tree Seed (SowTrueSeed.com) or from local booksellers.