Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Okra: Worthy of a Strut

Is any plant as disrespected, insulted, or maligned as the okra? In a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, adults named okra as one of the three vegetables they liked least. So many people underappreciate this gem of nature and treasure of beauty. A major campaign is needed to restore this fascinating vegetable to its rightful place in the food chain. Yes, it is beautiful, versatile, and nutritious as many around the world know much better than Americans.

The first opportunity to appreciate okra is in warm weather when its blossoms reach skyward in many home gardens and decorate properties along a highway. The flowers of the okra are as beautiful as those of the hibiscus, which the okra is related to. The flowers of an okra are up to 3 inches in diameter and consist of five petals (white to yellow) with usually a dot (red to purple) at the base of each petal. However, in contrast to the beautiful blossoms is the sticky, mucilaginous juice inside the resulting pods.

Some newcomers are turned off by okra’s characteristic gooey substance when its green seed pods with numerous white, round seeds are cut and fried. As a result, they avoid the “goo” by keeping the pods intact, cooking briefly (such as stir frying), or cooking with an acidic ingredient (such as tomatoes, vinegar, or lemon juice). But why avoid a major benefit of okra?

Need a thickening agent for a soup or stew? What works better than okra? The name gumbo derives from a west Africa term (the Bantu word ki ngombo) that means okra, which is used as a principal ingredient in gumbo because the mucilage released when okra slices are fried is an excellent thickening agent. In addition to being a main ingredient in gumbo, okra is a tasty delight that can be fried, boiled, blanched, sautéed, baked, grilled, steamed, blanched, and prepared in other ways – even freeze dried into okra chips.

The seed pod, a fruit in the botanical sense, is harvested immature and eaten as a vegetable. What can be healthier? Okra is low in calories with practically no fat and high in fiber, provides vitamins A and C, and has minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium. In addition to protein, okra seeds possess qualities like those of olive oil, the standard of excellence. Because its high soluble fiber may cut the pace that sugars are absorbed from the intestine, okra is often recommended for diabetics to stabilize their blood sugar.

Okra is also an accomplished traveler. Of all the native food crops of Africa, it is among the most widespread within the continent. Early records indicate that it was cultivated in Egypt as early as 1216. The plant likely spread throughout the Mediterranean region and later was first recorded in the Americas in 1658 where the Portuguese probably bought it from west Africa. By the early 1700s okra had arrived in the area of the U.S. South, and Thomas Jefferson had recorded its cultivation in Virginia by 1781.

Around the world the benefits of okra have been proven. West Africans slice, sun dry, and grind pods into a powder as a way to satisfy their hunger before the next harvest. Turks string out pods to dry for winter use. Asian counties use the leaves and immature fruit in ointments to relieve pain. Mature pods can even be ground and roasted as coffee substitutes, as they have been in Central America as well as in the American South during the Civil War.

With such a legacy as an extensive traveler, a beneficial culinary ingredient with pervasive kitchen uses, and a purveyor of good health, no wonder many aficionados appreciate this plant. However, few do so with the enthusiasm as the citizens of Irmo, S.C., who conduct an Okra Strut each September to celebrate this magnificent vegetable. A small town of 12,000 residents, Irmo claims “the nation’s original celebration of okra” as it brings Okra Man to life and expands to 55,000 with visitors during the two-day festival it has conducted since 1973. In addition to a parade, the Strut includes arts and crafts, rides and amusements, and obviously festival food that includes okra prepared in several ways.

Is okra the Rodney Dangerfield – who got “no respect” – of the botanical world? Not really. Although some adults superficially dislike this vegetable, other have discovered its value to enhance flavor and nutrition. Talk a walk on the wild side with okra like the folks of Irmo, S.C., do. You may find more benefits that the citizens of Central America, Africa, and Asia have found.

Note: Click here to see pictures taken during the Okra Strut in Irmo, S.C.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ederville: Where Time Stands Still

Hark back to a bygone era much simpler by today’s standards but quite complex at the time for its industrial innovations and designs. One weekend each year Ederville, which opened to the public initially in 2006, springs to life to display “100+ Years of Progress.”

With a trestle that lifts an animal-drawn plow high overhead to show the evolution of mechanized farm implements to today’s indispensable and proficient tractor, the center of Ederville buzzes with commerce of an earlier time. On the sprawling perimeter is the main attraction — an ever-expanding collection of agricultural machines that, although not as old as Methuselah, illustrate generations of industrial progress.

Usually open on the first weekend in November in Carthage, NC, Ederville is full of possibilities for families who want to reminisce about the old days and teach lessons to children about how past generations labored to make life more enjoyable and beneficial for the next generation.

Walking, Watching and Tasting

Walk though open-air structures of farm implements, watch a primitive sawmill in operation, taste an old-fashioned fried pie, cruise on a Stanley Steamer, ride on a miniature train, stroll through replicated shops decorated with period furnishings, and shop at a general store — these activities are available until a “spark show” ends each day at dusk.

Visitors stroll leisurely through decades of ever evolving mechanical invention, some machines with only one purpose, such as shelling corn or threshing wheat. A few are truly one of a kind and exist nowhere else in the world. Names of most buildings — steel wheel, rubber tire, steam tractors, pedal tractors, prairie tractors, and oil pulls — are deceptively simple and belie the complexity of the machinery inside. For example, the “construction” building houses equipment that would amaze even the most devoted fan of Bob the Builder.

Ederville’s effort to preserve memories of how steam, gas and antique implements worked on American farms (and are still in use) is enhanced by several power and equipment clubs. Organizations such as the Sandhills Antique Farm Equipment Club of neighboring Harnett County and the Central Carolina Antique Power and Equipment (C-CAPE) Club of Sanford, NC, demonstrate historic farm equipment during all three days. Tractor games are conducted by Classic Power Antique, Inc., an educational organization of central and eastern N.C. families who restore antique tractors, farm implements, and related equipment.

In addition, Chapter 37 (Eastern N.C.) of International Harvesters Collectors, a worldwide network to maintain IH history, knowledge, and memorabilia, participates with a variety of IH tractors. Chapter 12 (N.C. and surrounding states) of the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club, a worldwide club, demonstrates historic Caterpillar machinery that it has collected and preserved. (In fact, Ederville will be the site of the national ACMOC meeting in 2013.)

Although the Southern roots of agricultural progress are evident with the activities of the state and regional clubs, most early machines of large-scale farming on display were made in the Midwest. Many brand names such as McCormick, Case, Caterpillar, International Harvester, and John Deere are still very familiar. Consistent with the no-thrills design, these machines little have no creature comforts (power steering or air conditioning) that a modern generation expects. Of course, only steel (nothing cushy) seats complement steel steering wheels and other metal components.

Demanding Weekend

Saturday is the busiest day at Ederville and starts with a parade through “town” with equipment polished and groomed as lovely as a Runway Angel prepared for Victoria’s Secret annual fashion show. A church choir and a bluegrass band add music to entertain the strollers and watchers.

Saturday also includes an early afternoon tractor pull organized by Old Time Tractor Pullers Association (which defines an antique tractor as 1960 or older) of Denton, NC. The event, with categories that start with the 3,700-pound stock, awards trophies to winners and is a greatly anticipated affair that builds on the competitive spirit of the lawn mower pull conducted the previous evening by East Coast Pullers.

All three days also usually feature open shops, a noon whistle, equipment demonstrations in a field, and plowing in an outer field. In addition, Sunday morning offers a church service with a guest preacher.

In early fall Patti Eder typically prays for no rain during the forthcoming demanding weekend when she and her husband Ken host up to 10,000 guests who inspect and appreciate the more than 1,000 machines — improving with age like fine wine — an amazing collection considering that he bought the first tractor in early 2003.

Being Thankful

Join Patti in praying for no rain during the first weekend in November, so that the next visitors are unimpeded in observing the full array of activities and exhibits. Seeing the improvements in agricultural life creates a wonderful appreciation for how “modern” we live today and more reasons to be thankful later in the month with another tradition as ageless as Ederville’s relics — a Thanksgiving gathering with family members.

Note: Click here to see recent photos of Ederville.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tasting Cajun Life

To learn about the foodways of a culture or region, how would you do it? Nothing beats making a personal trip and tasting well-known examples, enjoying meals of typical dishes, visiting locations where food is grown or raised, and talking to local experts.

To learn more about Cajun food and its relevance to Southern culture, I joined a field trip conducted by the Southern Foodways Alliance to Louisiana. To contrast urban and rural experiences, the trip focused on New Orleans as well as Acadian towns, principally Eunice (the prairie Cajun capital of Louisiana), where the Arcadian Cultural Center depicts Arcadian migration and culture, including foodways.

Cajun cuisine is a cooking style of French-speaking refuges exiled by the British from Canada who settled in Louisiana. They adapted local ingredients (such as game meats, rice and crawfish) to rural French cooking and were also influenced by Native American, Caribbean, and other European cooking styles.

The trip was helpful to understand how simple Cajun food preparation is and learn more about unique cooking methods such as smothering (cooking a vegetable or meat in its own juices), sometimes known as étouffée, and the importance of other methods such as boiling (for example, crawfish). The visit also helped to appreciate more the importance of rice (the second largest agricultural export of Louisiana) and sugarcane in Cajun cooking.

Typical Dishes

Classic Cajun dishes include:
  • Jambalaya, a dish that contains rice, meat (such as chicken), seafood (such as shrimp), and vegetables (green peppers, onions, celery and chili peppers);

  • Gumbo, a soup that takes its name from a word brought from western Africa that means okra, which is used as a thickening agent and is a principal ingredient.
In addition to jambalaya and gumbo, I was also able to enjoy and learn more about:
  • Boudin, fresh sausage that is widely available and made fresh daily (becuase it doesn’t keep well for very long) with pork, rice, green onions, and spices and stuffed in a natural casing;

  • Cracklin, fried pieces of pork fat with a small amount of attached skin, flavored after frying with peppery Cajun spices;

  • Andouille, a spicy smoked sausage characterized by a coarse texture;

  • Beignet, a French-style doughnut, that is fried dough covered with powered sugar. In the French Quarter of New Orleans, beignets are square and usually served in orders of three.
Memorable Meals

Several meal experiences were memorable. Each meal gave a particularly insight into Cajun food and together made the trip truly representative of Cajun foodways.
  • Dinner at Calcasieu in New Orleans with chef Stephen Stryjewski (2011 James Beard Award Winner for Best Chef: South). Boudin and crawfish pie were appetizers; Louisiana chicken and sausage gumbo soup followed as the next course; entrees (all served family style) were catfish courtboullion, onion smothered pork, shrimp and eggplant dressing, and smothered greens. Pecan pie with praline ice cream and whiskey sauce was dessert.

  • Crawfish feed at Hawk’s opened by Anthony Arceneaux, who has a reputation for serving the biggest, sweetest, and best seasoned crawfish. Established in 1983 near Rayne, La., Hawk’s proclaims to be in the middle of nowhere (it is because field trip members were not trusted to find it on their own by car and had to ride a bus).

  • Smothered lunch at Le Village, a Cajun country retreat in Eunice, La., that featured smothered rabbit, smothered okra, smothered cabbage, and rice smothered in gravy.

  • Lunch of boudin at the Mowata Store in Mowata, La., where owner Bubba Frey makes up to 400 pounds daily.

  • Breakfast of boudin, sugarcane syrup, and biscuits prepared by The French Press of Lafayette, La.

  • Rice dressing supper in Eunice, La. at Ruby’s Cafe, which has been preparing plate lunches since the 1950s, that also included pork loin stuffed with local sausage, coleslaw, okra, and bread pudding.
Rice and Crawfish Fields

Side trips to locations where food is grown or processed added to the understanding of Cajun cuisine:
  • Rice fields and production of Cajun Grain in Kinder, La., owned by Kurt Unkel, who plants, grows, and mills brown jasmine rice that is a mixture of jasmine and wild red rice.

  • Crawfish fields and operations of Craig and Troy West Crawfish in Mamou, La., who run one of the oldest commercial crawfish businesses in the state and supply clients from the Southwest to New York City.
Local Experts

Discussions with regional food experts helped to explain Cajun foodways so that the programs were more than just tasting events:
  • Paul Prudhomme, owner of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans, a restaurant where I had a bowl of chicken gumbo for lunch, described the challenges of bringing rural flavors and cooking styles into a big city.

  • Jim Gossen, founder of Louisiana Foods (a leading crawfish wholesaler), explained how crawfish came to be farmed rather than fished.

  • Donald Link (also a James Beard award-winning chef), a descendant of Germans of Acadiana, described Cajun food as “the self-sufficient food of people who live in the country and eat what they can take from the land.” (Link is also co-owner of the restaurant Cochon and in-house boucherie with Chef Stryjewski.)

  • Bubba Frey explained why his boudin is so popular: He leaves out internal organs and uses very little grease. At the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center Kitchen in Eunice, he also demonstrated how cracklin is made.

  • Pableaux Johnson, writer and photographer, discussed the art and practice of smothering.
Tasting Cajun food (while also learning about Cajun history and listening to Cajun music) in Louisiana gives anyone a better understanding and appreciation of the importance of Cajun culture in the American South.

Note: Click here to see pictures taken during the Louisiana field trip.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Maxton: Where Collards Are a Tradition

In the fall many small towns and communities celebrate the harvest of the season and food that sustains them through the winter. The celebration of collards has become a tradition in the Town of Maxton, NC. With a crop as healthful as the collard plant, how should it be celebrated? Maxton, which claims to be “rich with greens,” organizes competitions of food, poetry, and costumes where collards are the central theme.

The Town

According to Dr. Gladys M. Dean, former mayor and founder of the festival, the event “honors the heritage and history of early settlers.” Scottish immigrants, who brought a tradition of eating collards with corn cakes, began settling the area in the 1700s and helped shaped Maxton, whose entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historical Places. Incorporated in 1874 with the name of Shoe Hill, the town changed its name several times before picking Maxton (the town of surnames beginning with Mac or Mc) in 1887. African Americans have also claimed Maxton as home for several generations, and it is where famous educator Charles N. Hunter, born into slavery around 1851, opened his first school in 1875 to improve the lives of African Americans.

The Annual Maxton Collard Festival, started in 2006 and held the second Saturday in November, continues to grow bigger, draw more participants, and attract more spectators from far away. The festival on South Austin Street now attracts over 4,000 people. In addition to being the collard center of the South in November, the town also claims the distinction of being “the collard sandwich capital” of the world. In fact, several festival food vendors make the sandwich – greens packed between two corn fritters with peppers and fatback – their primary item. All are tasty, but Shirley’s (a local caterer) makes the best ones.

The Competition

The best display of collards, however, is the food competition where local cooks proudly compete in categories that include main dishes, side dishes, salads and desserts. Nothing is more surprising to see than a cake with green icing labeled as “collard cake.” Soups, dressings, and salads line the table awaiting approval by the judges and tasting later by others. When my collard and black-eyed pea soup won a trophy, I knew that it must have hit the spot with the judges.

With a category known as “collard orations,” the festival recruits family stories, poems, and songs about collards. Several excellent stories – how collards survive frigid temperatures, how Scottish settlers transferred them to the Maxton area, how enslaved Africans brought a tradition of cooking the greens and drinking the juices known as pot likker – are in the festival souvenir book, sponsored by town businesses and festival supporters. However, the best “orations” read at the festival earn trophies as prestigious as the awards for the food. I’ve competed at two festivals, and each time have come home with a trophy.

The most unusual category is probably the collard costume competition when participants vie for trophies by wearing clothing decorated with collards. Winners have worn hats decorated as collard leaves topped with a red pepper as well as full-body suits imitating tall plants with mature leaves sprouting from toe to head. Even Dr. Dean as mayor walked the festival grounds in a collard suit. When I won first place, the prize was more valuable than any other.

The Competitive Spirit

The competitive spirit of the Maxton festival extends to other contests, such as for collard growing and collard eating. Arts and crafts dealers, food vendors, musicians and other entertainers round out the festival program that also includes a Veterans Day event.

The day ends with a “collard blasting ball” to celebrate how fall frosts improve the flavor and taste of collard leaves. The ball includes food (yes, more opportunities to eat collards) and dancing. Winners of dances such as the Chow Chow, the Fritter, the Fatback, and the Pot Likker receive a prize.

Maxton, a small town with a rich history, has added to its charm with a festival for everyone. Join the competitive spirit next year and enter one of the categories. You might come home with a trophy or prize.

Note: Click here to see recent photos of the Maxton Collard Festival.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

So Pretty

Collard leaves are so pretty,
On a plate so dandy
Loving soil so sandy,
Much better than candy.

Collard leaves are so pretty
With green tones so bright.
Sleeping during night,
They rise in sunlight.

Collard leaves are so pretty.
No plant likes to lean.
If raw, they are mean
And a bitter green.

Collard leaves are so pretty.
Spread around cow poo.
A little will do.
Wait to eat a few.

Collard leaves are so pretty,
Every morning and night,
Bunched together tight,
Good to the last bite.

Collard leaves are so pretty.
So little they cost.
Ready at first frost,
Without them we’re lost.

Collard leaves are so pretty.
Every plant’s a king.
Eat with chicken wing.
Then praises we’ll sing.

Collard leaves are so pretty,
Far better than kale,
Every fall for sale,
Don’t buy if they’re pale.

Collard leaves are so pretty,
Greener than turnips,
Juices for our sips --
Pot likker to our lips!

Collard leaves are so pretty.
When gone, everyone grieves
And wants more huge leaves
To eat with field peas.

Collard leaves are so pretty.
When stiff, hard to fold,
Quickly they are sold.
They’re worth more than gold.

Collard leaves are so pretty.
Vitamins they pack
Put them in a sack.
Sweeten with fatback.

Collard leaves are so pretty,
Pleasing to the eye.
Without them we might die.
Let’s eat some – oh my!

Note: This poem, prepared for the Sixth Annual Collard Festival in Maxton, NC, that I attended on Nov. 12, 2011, placed first in the collard poetry contest. It's a prize winner!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

My First True Love

My first true love --
We met in the field at night.
I kept her warm when it was cold.
She made each day a delight.
With wonder that was so bold.
My first true love was a collard plant.

My first true love --
Always a glorious sight,
A treasure she was to me.
Time together was so right.
Everyone could plainly see.
My first true love was a collard plant.

My first true love --
Worth more than a huge diamond,
Fore’er her praises I could sing.
She loved cold sand and warm sun
And sparkled in early spring.
My first true love was a collard plant.

My first true love --
She always smiled in the rain
And glistened in the bright sun.
Firm she was but oh so plain.
Romance should never be done.
My first true love was a collard plant.

My first true love --
Sometimes coarse and so very green,
She grew up extremely fast.
Then ne’er again was she seen.
But my love forev’r will last.
My first true love was a collard plant.

Note: This poem was prepared in appreciation of the Sixth Annual Collard Festival in Maxton, NC, that I attended on Nov. 12, 2011.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

In Ditches and Dishes: Picture a Sunflower on Your Plate

Have you traveled too fast along a two-lane country road and missed the thin yellow sunflowers growing in adjacent low areas? The next time you see a patch of the flowers, slow down and embrace a species of sunflower native to the South. It is often known as Jerusalem artichoke, a name very misleading because the plant is not an artichoke and it is not from Jerusalem. To avoid confusion, it’s more recently been called a sunroot or sunchoke.

Its blooms look like miniature sunflowers, providing a bright yellow sight to the highway landscape. The plant grows from 4 to 9 feet, but the real jewel is underground — a tuber, which is about three inches long and at least one inch thick, that resembles a ginger root. The perfect place for me to slow down and take a picture was in mid-September at the crossroads of Glendon, NC, where sunflowers were surrounding highway signs on a rural road between Carthage and Siler City.

Fortunately, Sir Walter Raleigh was not traveling too fast when he observed Native Americans cultivating sunroots in 1585 in an area of Virginia. However, it was French explorer Samuel de Champlain who took the plant to Europe in the early 1600s and created interest across the Atlantic Ocean by describing its taste similar to an artichoke. The French are also given credit for cultivating sunchokes on a large scale. The Italians named it girasole (meaning sunflower — literally turning to the sun); however, the English transformed the name into something familiar enough to pronounce (Jerusalem).

Early use of the vegetable is also documented in The Virginia Housewife, originally published in 1838 and widely regarded as the first Southern cookbook. It recommends boiling and dressing the tuber in ways “directed for potatoes” and covering it “with thick melted butter, and a nice white or brown sauce.” For many generations, sunchokes were not popular because they had a reputation as a poor person’s vegetable (a common weed with an edible root), although they are the most important root cash crop to originate in North America. In addition, an old wives’ tale linked them incorrectly to leprosy (the tuber’s shape was similar to distorted fingers deformed by the disease).

However, during World War II, the sunchoke gained favor in several countries because it could be bought without a ration card. Although now cultivated much more extensively in Europe than America, the tuber is making a comeback in the South because it has a slightly sweet and nut-like flavor (similar to water chestnuts). In addition, its potato-like texture makes it a favorite as a potato substitute for diabetics.

My wife and I first learned about “Jerusalem artichokes” on a Southern Foodways Alliance field trip in Tennessee. Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, NC, and named by the James Beard Awards in the final four for Best Chef Southeast, was mentioning how an 85-year-old lady supplies his restaurant with Jerusalem artichokes and gave fresh variety to his menu.

Many cooks and chefs in the South now use the vegetable as a main ingredient in a relish (with onion and red bell pepper). For example, Smith’s relish recipe is in several cookbooks, including a community cookbook published by SFA, which conducts events that relate foodways to culture. At a foodways film festival in Greenville, SC, Joe and Heidi Trull of Grits & Groceries provided samples of their relish as part of a tasting event before SFA documentary films were shown. Other prominent chefs and writers are also featuring the tuber in their cookbooks such as The New Southern Garden Cookbook by Sheri Castle, whose Southern food classes at A Southern Season I’ve attended.

Because the roots of the sunchoke to the South sometimes are often missed by casual readers of both old and new Southern cookbooks, its regional connection should be celebrated more. As I’ve learned more about the plant, I look for it in recipes as well as on the roadside. It’s a plant that still enhances the flavors of the South.