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.