Thursday, September 23, 2021

Fun With Okra

Without exception, my family loves okra. Okra loves hot weather, which is why it is such a Southern thing, but it is possible to grow it around here and I have found it from some local farmers occasionally. But to really ensure an adequate supply, we have started growing it in our backyard!

green beans on left, tomatoes in back, okra on front right

Our first crop was last summer - we started the plants from seed, mainly my husband driving this with his outsize love for okra, and were astonished at everything about them. The okra plants get about 8' tall and their stalks are woody like trees, so it's not easy to get them out of the garden in the fall. The pods grow from gorgeous hibiscus-like flowers. And the pods grow fast. We try to harvest them at 3-5" long, but even when we miss some and they are longer than that, they have stayed tender and not woody, thank goodness. 

This picture has a funny story. I picked the garden in the morning, and then I wanted a picture of a person with the okra plants to give you some idea of their height. I brought my husband outside to help, and I am struggling to hold all the okra pods he found after I thought I had picked all of them! He called me "okra-blind," oh my word. I retorted that the pods grew big enough in the few hours between pickings! Also, we are getting about a quart of okra pods daily right now from 10 plants. Amazing.

Okra pods keep pretty well in the fridge. My go-to recipe is to slice the pods in coins, toss with some flour and cornmeal and a seasoned salt or equivalent, then fry in a hot oiled pan until they get some crispy, browned edges. We never have leftovers!

Extremely proud to have okra, green beans, and tomato pesto (on pasta) all from our backyard garden!

Another easy method is to oil the pods lightly, salt and pepper, then grill until they are browned in places and even splitting open a little. So so so good. 

When time permits, I make gumbo. And I was astonished to see at this linked blog post that we also grew okra in 2010. I have no memory of that whatsoever! 

This year, I also pickled some okra because there was so much on hand. I used the Ball Blue Book recipe, which is essentially the same as the dilly beans I like to can.

If you have okra recipes to recommend, please do!

Public service announcement: I absolutely re-use my canning lids if they are free of nicks, dents, rust, and the like.  I have been doing this for years. There was (is?) a canning lid shortage due to the pandemic, but I recommend this practice for economical reasons even when there is not a shortage. I have found no difference between lids that went through a waterbath or through the pressure canner. The main thing is to reuse lids in good condition. Iffy lids are used on jars that are used for food storage in the freezer or elsewhere, or recycled in my metal bin that I take to a salvage yard.

A word about how I did those okra pickles: I looked at the recipe one night, pulled the jars from the basement the next morning while waiting for the coffee, washed them later in the morning while on a phone call, stuffed the okra pods and garlic cloves in the jars in the afternoon before picking up Phoebe, mixed the brine and filled the canner after picking up Phoebe, and finally assembled the jars and canned their butts right before we went out the door again to Ben's game. It goes to show that little chunks of time can add up to a finished project. Dogged determination gets everything done, right? We choose what we spend our precious time on, and food preservation is important to me, but dang, family life is busy. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

A Pilgrimage

A friend told me that the Baltimore Museum of Art was hosting an exhibit of Gee's Bend quilts, and I knew I needed to see these quilts in person. This is my third fall with the big kids' sports laid over top of the garden and preserving, laid on top of regular family life which keeps me hopping to begin with. I'm in survival mode right now, but I was determined to see these quilts. I did!

I love these quilts for their beauty and seeing the artistic decisions the quilters made in the urgent utility of using what they had and keeping their families warm.

They remind me of the wholly practical approach my Grandma Weaver had. No time for fussy stitches, matching corners, purchasing coordinating fabric or enough fabric so the whole quilt was the same. That pragmatism is beautiful to me on its own. "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." 

The exhibit notes also explained how the Gee's Bend quilters received Martin Luther King Junior in their isolated community three weeks before "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, Alabama, and how they leveraged their quilting fame for racial justice and voting rights after that. And now I connect to the quilts through that lens, too. After George Floyd's murder in May 2020, I began a personal journey of education and activism regarding systemic racism. 

I have mixed feelings about the Gee's Bend quilts (and Amish quilts) being displayed in art museums and called art. Certainly I agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and these quilts are stunning. However, I think of art as made to BE ART. The people who make art think of themselves as artists. They should get paid for that and recognized as artists, and note "artist" as profession when they fill in that line. The rest of us who make beautiful things, accidentally or on purpose, I want respect for us, too. I'm quibbling with art museums being the highest standard of respect for beautiful things. 

It's similar to the mindset that truly beautiful rooms and homes are the ones showcased in magazines. I reject that - those places are often showcases that simply photograph well, not homes where people are happy, industrious, and engaged in life. 

How can we respect the quilters of Gee's Bend, the Amish quilters, the everyday quilters like me? We are often the homemakers whose unpaid work in running our homes and raising children and the like is not counted as economically significant or valuable. And the quilters of Gee's Bend have the added layers of poverty and Black skin as well. It's a lot easier to take the quilts from Gee's Bend and exhibit them in an art museum, to say they are "eye-poppingly gorgeous" (New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, 2002) than it is change attitudes towards poor Black female homemakers. 

 There were only five quilts in the exhibit. I stood in front of them and cried behind my mask (useful for that, isn't it?). And then I drove home and got out my own needle and thread again.