The Practical Gardener

I’m a member of the gender that I never tire of warning my daughters about. I think it’s because of the fantasies that run amok, like rampaging mastodons, through the burning minds of males of all ages. It’s the testosterone; I’m sure of it. The typical male will get an idea in his head that quickly catches fire, taking on a life of its own and obscuring all else. This process is all too apparent in adolescent boys — and that’s what I warn Jasmine and Laurel about.

As males grow older, though, the realm of fantasy does broaden a bit. When I was a pimply-faced 15-year-old, I constantly obsessed about girls; trust me, this is what 15-year-old boys do. Of course, as a middle-aged man with an expanding waistline and a graying beard, I still harbor mad fantasies — but now, they’re mostly about vegetables (believe me, this is what middle-aged men do).

The first time I grew okra, I was possessed by just this sort of rampaging fantasy. Though I’ve never turned down a bowl of gumbo or any other sort of Cajun, stewlike concoction made with okra, I’d never gone out of my way to grow the stuff either. It always seemed to me that you had to have been raised with okra to love it. I guess I put this slippery veggie in the same class as vegemite sandwiches — intellectually, I knew that legions of people loved them, but my gut just didn’t “get it.”

And then I was seized by the idea that the problem with okra wasn’t really the taste — it just hadn’t been grown right. I think it was the fatal intersection of slick copy in an heirloom-seed catalog and excess testosterone that persuaded me to grow okra, overriding my indigenous Yankee prejudice. That first spring, I at least had the sense not to tell Eleanor that I’d planted a red heirloom variety of okra on real estate that, to her way of thinking, could have been put to better use. And I harvested the first batch right on schedule — just a few days after the flowers appear — to ensure maximum tenderness. I cooked up a batch in a recipe I’d searched out, eager to surprise Eleanor with a delightful new taste sensation.

Try as I might, though, the okra that I’d lavished so much love on and had cooked with such commitment tasted — well, it tasted just like okra. I was bitterly disappointed, and Eleanor was ripped when she learned that I’d not only cooked up a mess of her least favorite veggie but had planted a mega-patch of the stuff. Compounding the problem, she then spent needless time and energy winnowing my incomprehensible behavior in search of hidden meanings. Women just don’t understand the synergistic power of testosterone, fertile soil — and men with overactive imaginations.

But that’s what happens when grown men start letting their fantasies get the upper hand. And I know I’m not alone in this; I’ve heard a surprising number of women tell such tales about their spouses. Stories of veggies that had captured the souls of men with vivid imaginations, a supply of fertile soil, and the requisite testosterone to turn idle thoughts into food the family would refuse to eat.

As it turns out, however, my first crop of okra did help me discover three terrific uses for this underappreciated cousin of cotton and hollyhocks. Pickled, the lovely red heirloom varieties make the perfect garnish for a good-ol’-boy martini. (And the consumers of those perfect, pickled garnishes pretty quickly get … well, you get the picture…)

Another reason I still grow at least a few okra plants each year is that the flowers are just so darn lovely. Big and sensual, they’re generally yellow — sometimes with a wonderful red blush in the middle.

And now, a confession: I’ve actually come to enjoy the taste of okra. So I grow enough to be able to fix it for myself on days when Eleanor won’t be home for dinner. It tastes great with garlic, tomatoes, squash or any other summer veggies, and it contains a built-in thickening agent that kicks in if you cook it longer. You definitely need to harvest okra when it’s young and fresh, because it takes on a woody texture quite fast — especially in hot, dry weather.

A wild variety of okra still grows in Ethiopia, where the plant was probably first cultivated at least 2,000 years ago. It’s mentioned in the writings of a Spanish Moor who’d visited Egypt in the 12th century. Closer to home, okra was commonly grown by French colonists in Louisiana before 1740 and was being grown as far north as Philadelphia by 1748.

It’s too late to start this warm-weather crop now, but it’s worth remembering next spring. If you suffer from vegetable bigotry, grow it just for the flowers. And if you have any sense of culinary adventure, pick up some at one of our local farmers’ markets, find a decent recipe — and give okra a chance.

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