Sunday, September 30, 2012


[First published in the Brazos Valley Farmers' Market newsletter, September 15, 2012. The prose in The Lost Crops of Africa is sublime.]

A member of the mallow family, okra, inspires a perhaps muted allegience from vegetable lovers, and usually general disdain from vegetable nonlovers; however, it redeems itself in its potential for an astonishing array of uses beyond soups and stews: from its seeds can be extracted an oil comparable to olive oil or be processed into a protein source, and the stems and leaves could be animal feed.

But its uses don’t stop with edible products: the mucilage offers benefits of laxatives (owing to the soluble fat, and ranking with psyllium and flaxseed); the gums and pectin can lower serum cholesterol, and can be used as a substitute for aloe vera. Like its relative, kenaf, fibers from okra can be fashioned into high-quality paper. Jokingly, it has been said, “okra: a vegetable so slimy you don’t notice how hairy it is.” Indeed, the Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables leads off its surprisingly entertaining chapter on okra on a 1974 survey of least-liked vegetables.

In African dialects, the word for okra sounds similar to gumbo (, and indeed, it is regarded with reference in New Orleans, where it forms the basis of signature dishes, such as…gumbo.

Published by the National Academies Press, Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables offers a transcendent literary homage to okra. The sheer delightfulness of the language in this scientific volume will bring a smile to even the most mucilage-averse persons. For instance—

“In reality okra could have a future that will make people puzzle over why earlier generations failed to seize the opportunity before their eyes. In the Botanical Kingdom it may actually be a Cinderella, though still living on the hearth of neglect amid the ashes of scorn.” (National Research Council (2006-10-27). "Okra". Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables. Lost Crops of Africa. 2. National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-10333-6)

And later—

“In America, where it appears almost exclusively in stews and soups, okra is usually seen in cross section, cut into disks that look like little cartwheels with a seed nestled between each pair of spokes. Okra is also the key ingredient in gumbo, the famous dish of the American South.”

A study in robustness, okra grows easily in tropical, subtropical, and temperate climates, but can adapt to dry climates also.

Okra and tomatoes
Southern Living’s 10 best okra recipes
Curried okra

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Water dogs

Two or three times per week, Oliver and Canela go for a swim in a pond about a mile from my home. Adjacent to the railroad track, this pond boasts a notable history. My historian friend, Texas native Jimmy Klechka, said that pond was first impounded in the early 20th century to provide steam engines with water. Later, the pond provided once-through cooling water for a small-ish electrical power plant. More recently, this beleaguered body of water and its downstream neighbors were badly polluted with arsenic by an adjacent pesticide manufacturer. Remediation has been ongoing for more than a decade.

Oliver, a yellow Lab mix and natural swimmer, flings himself into the water with abandon. On cue, using a modern plastic atl-atl (curved throwing stick), I launch rocks into the pond while standing on the railroad tracks. At the sound of the plunk, Oliver swims so fast to the ripple that he leaves a wake.

Canela, a little red hound mix, at first kept right behind Oliver. When he turned, she turned. Now that she has gained more confidence, she swims her own swim with her tail sticking out of the water like a flag. Today she jumped in before I was able to remove her leash. While about 40 feet from shore, Oliver grabbed the leash in his mouth, and led Canela back to shore.
Rarely, a freight train chugs by, and I have to scramble out of the way down a talus slope to the shoreline.