By Belle Crawford
A new book, The Whole Okra by author Chris Smith, does more than try to convince the overwhelming population of okra haters to give the slimy vegetable another try. It chronicles the years Smith spent getting to know the crop through research, agricultural trialing and copious culinary experiments with every part of the plant. The book discusses a range of topics including the origins of the vegetable (Africa), seed saving and best practices for germination, making okra seed coffee and okra flower-infused vinegars, and the benefits of okra cosmetics.
Ostensibly, the information in Smith’s book seems intended for a niche of farmers, agricultural historians and people with weird food fetishes, but the work is presented with a literary style that is humorous and filled with interesting anecdotes. Okra itself is personified as the misunderstood southern outcast, shy but with an often repressed inner grit, ready to break free from the pretense of its large, obnoxious extended Malvaceae family (of which cotton and cacao are a part.) “Be your lovely self, and screw family expectations,” Smith lovingly urges Okra. It may take 50 pages to convert the most devout okra-deniers, but by the last chapter Okra’s self-esteem is much healthier and the reader is poised to give it a standing ovation.
Surprisingly, Smith didn’t grow up observing the various reactions to his granny’s gumbo recipe. He grew up in England, where the vegetable is virtually nonexistent in regional cuisine.
“It was in 2006, at the tender age of 26, that I experienced okra for the first time,” he writes. While on a kayaking trip to NC (his first trip to the US), a friend pushed a bowl of fried okra toward him. “The little round lumps looked like sections of wooden dowel, rolled in sawdust and deep-fried,” he explains. “And taste? There was none.”
Luckily, Smith isn’t the type to hold a grudge. The Whole Okra includes recipes contributed by well-known southern chefs. There are recipes for okra seed tofu, bread and couscous, okra marshmallows, okra kimchi, okra flower tea, fried okra leaves and okra microgreens, along with dozens of traditional and contemporary okra dishes. Smith prepared all of the recipes included in the book for his family in order to record their reactions.
For Smith, who describes himself as a “permaculturist at heart,” the book was more than a professional foray into the world of publishing. In a recent talk at The Collider in Asheville, he explained how compiling the content for The Whole Okra connected him with a larger culinary and agricultural community. “Local chefs and businesses were willing to embrace okra and experiment widely, and my own okra growing trials led to the formation of a nonprofit called The Utopian Seed Project, which aims to look at all food with fresh eyes,” Smith says.