If I had a dollar for every time somebody, emboldened by my Southern accent, asked me a question about okra — “What is that?” when they see it growing (once somebody asked, “Is that marijuana?”), or “How do you cook it?” or “Doesn’t it get slimy?” — I’d be able to buy, well, a whole lot more okra. But I never get tired of answering questions about my okra (Hill Country Red is the variety), which is growing this year in my new raised bed on the south side of the house, near the sidewalk and the street. And I never get tired of the feeling of peace that comes over me when I’m planting it or watering it or hunkering down to peer up under its forest of leaves, looking for the little green nubs that will go from a-little-too-small to just-right to inedibly-woody-and-too-large in a day and a half. Okra pods start their lives as flowers — creamy yellow-white blooms that look like hibiscus, since okra is actually a hibiscus cousin. Then the petals fold together in a long thin spire that dries and separates from the stem until it can be lifted off, like a dunce cap from a little green head. And that little green head is the okra, which, if unpicked, will grow until it’s several inches long and the sides swell out in sharp flares that are woody and fibrous to the touch, and worse to the teeth. You have to keep an eye on your okra, if you want it to be good. (Edna Lewis’s okra pancakes are one of the best ways I know to honor the perfect green pod.)
I’m writing a book about how to pay attention in your daily life, and what personal and politicial good those practices can do. Gardening is one of the ways I learn to pay attention, to myself and what’s around me. I notice more out there, and when I’m gardening my senses are heightened not just by the texture of leaves or stems or the soft thump of vegetables into a basket but by the subtle sense of companionship I feel among other living things, whether those things are trees or animals or plants, and the subtle pressures of those other lives — unknowable, quiet, but unmistakable — against my own. Tomatoes are exciting but demanding: when they really get to popping, they will wear you out. Potatoes are secretive. Eggplants are haughty, secure in their own gorgeous solidity, like an Astor dowager who deigns to give you a tip (and they are so gorgeous, glossy purple-black or purple-striped or moon-white.) Rhubarb is forthright and garrulous. Kale is humble as a Dickens heroine, ready always to be of nourishment and use. But okra — okra is kin.
Okra — quintessentially Southern, as far as most Americans know — is a traveling food that’s still deeply homely, domestic, in the simple and unsentimental way that ordinary things and their stories are. It has a quiet, unassuming personality, although its long history would surely give it the right to talk, loud and long and often sad. In Kenya, “okra” means soul, the divine spark of life in every person. Okra came with enslaved Africans to America. And like them, and their culture, it endured and flowered into a life of its own, here. Divine spark. Inexplicable.
In the garden, on a hot August evening that sends a shimmer of fog over the windows, I lean down, and into, my own stand of okra, two thousand miles from where I was born. And I feel it waiting, humming with the quiet life of stories from the past and for the present, as all ordinary things are if we only know how to listen.