Okra has its roots in Africa, where Arabs documented this member of the mallow family as being among the species found in the western part of the continent in the 12th century. During the colonization of North America, it was found as far north as Philadelphia, where okra was grown in gentlemen’s gardens, perhaps as a decorative plant because the flower resembled a hollyhock or hibiscus.
In the American South, full sun and dry conditions were perfect for growing okra. Inventories of provisions fed to the enslaved on ships bound for America do not include okra, said Eve Otmar, master of Historic Gardening. It is possible, she said, that the seeds could have been brought from either West Africa or the West Indies.
Finnish botanist Peter Kalm traveled within the colonies from 1748 to 1751 collecting seed and plant specimens for his professor, Carolus Linnaeus, the founder of modern taxonomy, the system of classifying organisms. In his diaries, Kalm noted okra grew wild in the West Indies, but it was planted in gardens in America.
Thomas Jefferson grew okra in his Monticello garden, and his daughter Martha left a recipe for okra soup — a gumbolike dish that also featured the American Indian crops of lima beans and cymlings, a type of squash. More often, though, okra would have been grown, tended and found on the tables of enslaved and free Black people. By the end of the 18th century, however, it had become more popular for the gentry.
Today, okra is grown in the Sankofa Heritage Garden in the Historic Area, along with other vegetables that would have been part of the African American diet. “Okra” and “gumbo” are derived from West African words. Reci-pes that originated in Africa became part of food traditions that were passed to children and grandchildren and also made their way into gentry kitchens, where enslaved women often did the cooking. In addition to mastering English and French dishes, these cooks introduced new foods and spices from Africa and the Caribbean.
Master of Historic Foodways Frank Clark says this recipe from Mary Randolph is so simple it needs no translation to modern times. The only addition he suggests is a matter of taste. “If you want an African or West Indies twist, you can add some fish or Scotch bonnet peppers near the end of the stewing process,” Clark said. “But those peppers are very hot, so a little goes a long way.”
Okra was not part of the culinary landscape of the Northeast, where Williamsburg Inn Executive Chef Travis Brust grew up.
“Okra was not on the menu,” he said. Brust first encountered this odd-looking vegetable when he moved to Virginia.
“I am not a big fan of okra by itself, so I never grew it in a garden, but I do admit it is delicious when served breaded and fried as a side dish in barbecue restaurants,” he said.
As okra is a real favorite in the South, Brust uses it in recipes for gumbo and jambalaya at the Williamsburg Inn. For Trend & Tradition, he offers a version of a shrimp and okra po’boy, a classic New Orleans sandwich made with fried shrimp, oysters or other fish and served on toasted French bread. This recipe has a real zip to it, so he cautions that cooks who would like a milder flavor should reduce or eliminate the chili powder.