Charles Wise, a Slow Food Asheville board member and avid home gardener, is adamant that the King Okra crown must rest rightfully on the head of Chris Smith, author of James Beard Foundation Award-winning book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration and creator of the aptly named “The Okra Podcast.” But when pressed, Wise humbly allows that “I may have been Johnny Okra Seed this spring.”
Wise was the driving force behind SFA reviving its annual Heritage Food Project with Okra 2020, a celebration of Aunt Hettie’s Red, winner of a 2019 chefs tasting of 56 varieties staged at Bhramari Brewing Co. The campaign’s original vision was to distribute individual packets of seeds to home gardeners at tailgate markets in the spring and in larger quantities to Asheville-area farmers, who would then sell Aunt Hettie’s okra at markets and to chefs to feature in their restaurants.
When COVID-19 wreaked havoc on Plan A, Wise was not deterred. With the help of SFA board member Maia Surdam and Bountiful Cities outreach coordinator Cathy Cleary, he got about 100 packets to individuals and community gardens and more to farmers, including Gaining Ground Farm and Mighty Gnome Market Garden, in time for late spring planting. Now that the plants are beginning to produce, local market shoppers, diners and consumers can judge for themselves how Aunt Hettie’s Red stacks up.
Meg Chamberlain, owner of Fermenti Foods with husband Lars Peterson, also farms her Madison County land and took an experimental approach to seed and pod. She sowed seeds in three locations using growing methods ranging from benign neglect to cozy morning coffee talks with some plants. All have grown and produced okra, though the ones in optimal conditions are tallest — between 6 and 7 feet.
In late August, Chamberlain began fermenting her first harvest of 2-inch to 6-inch pods. “I’ve got a few ideas for them,” she says. “I’m testing a dilly beans approach. Maybe a kimchi, but Chris Smith rules the okra kimchi, so maybe not. I’m going to play around and see what I come up with.”
Ben Hancock launched Sweet Brine’d locally sourced ferments in 2016 and started selling at tailgate markets in 2017. He, too, is testing preparation methods with the Aunt Hettie’s Red pods he has just started receiving from Smallholding Farm in Alexander. “I have done an okra pickle with vinegar, and I have tasted some okra ferments that were not my favorite,” he says. “We’ve got some things to figure out because okra can be kind of challenging. Depending on how it’s prepared, it can be mucilaginous.” (A fancy way to describe okra’s sometimes viscous consistency.)
Hancock says he will be doing some serious experimentation with the goal of producing a fermented okra pickle. Expect whatever Sweet Brine’d comes up with to be at the River Arts District Farmers Market on Wednesdays and on Saturdays at the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s market at A-B Tech.
Danielle Keeter, who owns Mighty Gnome Market Garden with Mark McDonagh, says the first 200 seeds she planted had a very low germination rate. But the second round, planted a few weeks later, were nearly 100% successful, and Mighty Gnome has become the area’s primary Aunt Hettie’s Red grower.
“We’re harvesting a little late, but right now the plants are about shoulder high and beautiful,” says Keeter. “The pods are deep red and delicious.” Her initial yield will go to chef DeeAnn Rose at The Swag resort in Waynesville and Asheville chefs Ashley Capps and Travis Schultz for their meal-delivery business, New Stock, which they launched in April.
“I told Danielle I’d take all the okra she would sell me, which was about 6 pints,” says Capps. “Travis pickled them in a white wine vinegar with a small amount of aromatics, and they are a gorgeous crimson-pink. We’ll hold those for the winter to put in salads and for pickles in the meal boxes.”
Capps plans to use future harvests for gumbo in a New Orleans-themed box and for a small dinner event New Stock plans to host with Farewell AVL on Sept. 15. “It is always easy for us to find a way to use good food,” says Capps.
Gaining Ground’s Aunt Hettie’s Red has gone to the chefs at Rhubarb and Forestry Camp and is available at local tailgate markets as well as at the Gaining Ground farm stand.
For the okra-hesitant, Keeter offers a modified recipe for okra cornmeal cakes she tweaked when she was out of cornmeal, substituting semolina flour and panko bread crumbs. “It’s basically a fritter with chunks of okra and delicious, even for people who think they don’t like okra,” she says. Find the recipe at avl.mx/82d.