In Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.
Pickled okra is the perfect snack: Salty, briney, with a satisfying snap and a stalk of juicy, spherical seeds to burst between your teeth. Fried okra’s fuzzy exterior, combined with its slimy interior, creates a borderline confusing confluence of textures that somehow just works. In my humble opinion, okra doesn’t get a sliver of the recognition it deserves in the extended pickle universe, and here we are at the dusk of the hipster pickle boom. It’s devastating. If you’re anything like me—an olives/oysters/pickles aficionado who could take red wine vinegar in IV drip-form—consider okra pickles your next snack conquest. No refrigerator is truly a refrigerator without a 16-ounce jar of it.
I come from a family of pickled okra fanatics. Whenever a fresh jar appears in my parents’ fridge, it’s only got about a half day before it’s totally empty. The cured veggie makes an appearance at our Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, along with pickled watermelon rinds and heaps of stuffed olives. Few feelings are more satisfying—indeed, few things feel more right to me—than standing at my parents’ kitchen island, a jar of Talk O’ Texas okra pickles open in front of me, going absolutely H.A.M. on those suckers in complete silence. (I’m normal!)
Here’s the thing: Okra is a southern thing, and I was born and raised in Chicago. My parents, too, are full-blooded Midwesterners. I recently asked my mom where the Perry pickled okra obsession came from, and she said, “Your dad and I were at the grocery store and he saw it and put it in the cart.” An honest and harrowing tale. I asked my pickle/olive/oyster/herring-loving dad how he’d gotten the taste for okra, and he pegged it on Uncle Tim. My Minnesotan mom’s sister, Peg, married a bone fide Texan, Tim, an incredibly kind man who bears remarkable resemblance to a bloodhound. On a trip to Houston in the ’80s or ’90s to visit Peg and Tim, my dad was introduced to Talk O’ Texas brand pickled okra—and the rest, as they say, is history. (“Only the mild kind, though,” my mom asked me to include. We are, after all, boring Midwesterners.)
Fresh okra appears in my diet less frequently, but for every immaculate pickled vegetable is its non-cured counterpart with less caché. Okra, also known as (the incredibly sapphic) “lady’s fingers,” is a flowering plant in to cotton family. What we eat are the seed pods. Like most veggies, okra is low in saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol; according to some recent studies, lady’s fingers can help treat diabetes. So, you know, it’s a vegetable, and it’s good for you.
It’s not entirely clear where in the world okra first initially grew. Researchers argue between West Africa, Ethiopia, and Southeast Asia. It’s agreed on, though, that the plant is native to West Africa and arrived in the American colonies, the Caribbean and Brazil via the transatlantic slave trade. Slave-owner Thomas Jefferson noted in 1781 that okra was being grown on his Virginia plantation, and gumbo is described in early 19th-century cookbooks. Since then, okra has become a mainstay of southern American cuisine, specifically of black southern cuisine. If you’re a northerner and you’ve eaten okra before, you’ve probably had it in gumbo, and archetypal Louisianan dish. Gumbo likely got its name from the Bantu word for okra, ki ngombo.
Follow that line: Okra went (possibly) from Southeast Asia to West Africa, and definitely from West Africa to the American colonies, the colonies to Texas, and then from Texas to my parents’ Chicago kitchen in the ’90s. It’s traveled quite literally around the world to get to my mouth, and is yet another example of the exploitation of African culture and black labor in the slave trade. Pickling can’t remove the vegetable’s history.
Okra’s integral role in gumbo means its popularity isn’t waning anytime soon in Louisiana. New Orleans recently mourned the loss of its own Mr. Okra, a.k.a. Arthur Robinson, a beloved character who manned a mobile produce stand. As the New Orleans Advocate wrote of his passing, “He was a link back to a different era in New Orleans, when everything from ice to charcoal was sold door to door.” He was actually the second Mr. Okra—his father, Nathan Robinson, was the first, having sold produce door-to-door in a wheelbarrow as early as the 1930s. Mr. Okra’s daughter, Sergio Robinson, has said she’ll pick up the torch as the new Ms. Okra. And so the tradition carries on in New Orleans.
And for what it’s worth: Tyler The Creator released a track called “OKRA” just this spring. So, you know, it’s a cool vegetable.
It’s unclear when, exactly, okra started being pickled, but the cured lady fingers are certainly a Texas thing. Lady Bird Johnson had her own recipe for “LBJ Ranch Pickled Okra,” and if Lady Bird was on it, it’s gotta be a veritable Texan dish. It’s also a fairly popular Bloody Mary garnish in Austin—the Texas version of Wisconsinities topping their breakfast cocktails with cheese curds. If you’re like me and expect a full platter of crudité in your Bloodies, this is good enough reason to book flights to Austin.
The most popular okra pickle brand—or, the one that I swear by, at least—is the aforementioned Talk O’ Texas. According to the company’s website, the pickles were first made in 1950 in Dick and Mitzi Grimes’ kitchen in San Angelo, Texas, about three and a half hours west of Austin. The company remains in San Angelo, though has moved out of the family kitchen and into a 60,000-square-foot plant. Talk O’ Texas produces three products: mild okra pickles, hot okra pickles, and liquid hickory smoke sauce, which is not a pickle. The only question on TOT’s FAQ page is, “Are your Okra Pickles gluten free?”, which I imagine was begrudgingly added sometime in the last decade. It currently has production positions available at its plant; should I apply?
Apparently, most folks’ turn-off when it comes to okra is the slime. Yes, okra’s interior feels like a Nickelodeon game show minus the washed-up Olympian host. Sure, it’s a weird “tongue-feel,” whether the lady fingers are cooked or fresh or pickled. But I guess all I have to say to the slime haters is: Um, grow up? Life is full of uncomfortable feelings—after all, what’s the sunshine without a little bit of rain? You have to take in a little bit of mucus texture in order for a pickle’s perfect brine and irresistible crunch to really stand out. C’mon, if you’re down with oysters, you’re more than prepared to shoot back a little goop in pickled okra form.