Okra's Deeply Rooted History In Southern Cuisine

Southern cuisine is beloved far outside of just the geographical confines of the American South for its delicious, comforting, buttery, rich flavors and dishes that don't just fill us up but feed the soul, too. But, Southern cuisine did not develop in a vacuum — far from it. The cuisine took from, was inspired by, and is the result of many colliding cultures and cuisines including Native American, African, and countless others. The diverse ingredients, methods, and flavors create what we today collectively call Southern cooking.

Okra is a prime example of a food that's ostensibly Southern in nature but actually has a long and complex history. The thousands-year old vegetable originated in Africa, where it flourished and even grew wild across the continent. It landed in the southern states as a direct result of the Transatlantic slave trade. When enslaved people were brought from Africa to North America, the crop was brought along with them. By the early 1700s, Okra had arrived in the American South, where it would thrive in the warm growing climate and spread as far North as Philadelphia. By 1760, okra had solidified its place as a common sight on American dinner tables, which we know from entries in botanical journals and even a reference from Thomas Jefferson, whose enslaved people grew and cooked with Okra at the Monticello plantation according to the Colonial Williamsburg U.S. History Museum.

How okra lives on in soul food today

From its African roots to its status today as a staple in Southern American cuisine, okra has been enjoyed over the centuries in a variety of styles and dishes. Fried okra might be the presentation style the vegetable is most known for these days, but before it was battered and deep fried, generations of people used okra in soups, where its slimy texture can act as a natural thickener. 

The Gullah Geechee people (descendants of enslaved Africans along the lower Atlantic coast and the region known as the Lowcountry) have a longstanding connection to okra as a staple in their cuisine and heritage. One of their popular dishes is a simple, nourishing soup of okra, tomatoes, and smoked meat served over rice. Chef and cultural steward BJ Dennis is working to preserve and uplift traditional Gullah Geechee cuisine, including okra, in his recipes, pop up events, and appearances on shows like Netflix's "High on the Hog". 

Travel to New Orleans, and you'll again see okra as a regional cooking staple, such as in creole gumbo, where it is stewed and served with seafood and sausage. And, of course, there's always the crispy golden fried okra, ubiquitous on Southern soul food cooking menus. However you next enjoy it, savor your next serving of okra with an ample side of appreciation and reverence for its complicated and important history.