< Vegetables



Hibiscus seculentus

While okra first came into cultivation in southeast Asia, and established itself as a staple vegetable in much of Africa before the modern era, American agriculturists of the 19th century believed that okra originally came from the West Indies. Early in the century its use was identified with southern cooks generally, and African-American cooks particularly. By the end of the century, it enjoyed sufficient popularity to be cultivated in hot houses year round for big city markets.

While two species of okra grew in the West African regions where many people were enslaved, only the common okra (Hisbiscus esculentus) came to the New World with them. The other, ‘West African Okra’ (Hibiscus manihot), remained an African cultivar exclusively. [1] Yet the taste among slaves for the mucilaginous qualities of the okra led them to cook the leaves of the Hand Leaved Violet (Viola palmate) in soups and call the plant ‘wild okra.” [2] Botanically, okra is related to cotton; consequently, southern planters believed it to thrive in the sorts of soils best suited for their cash crop, rich, well drained, loamy earth. In the first week in April the farmer planted okra seeds in a low, loamy, well-drained section of field. Often a hand would plow ridges three to four feet apart, and then 4 or five seeds would be deposited into each hole chopped regularly (about a foot and a half spacing) into the crest by a hoe. When seedlings reached hand height, they would be culled, leaving only the hardiest plants growing in the field. The mature plant stood as tall as a man, with the crown dividing into a mass of alternate branches. . Because the pods grew upward, like fingers pointing to heaven, the could be harvested easily. If gathered for food, the pickers put it in their tote only if the pod was green and snapped off with a twist of the fingers. Any woodiness and the pod was thrown away, for the plant would bear pods as long as no seed ripened on the plant. It was the habit of cultivators to let the earliest plants ripen their pods which would be used for seed. At various times in the century okra seed was harvested, roasted, ground, and mixed with boiling water as a coffee substitute.

A Jamaica botanist of the early 19th century observed that the pods “are an excellent emollient vegetable . . . and are generally eaten either cooked by themselves, or as an ingredient in soups. It is the chief vegetable in West-India pepper-pots, and renders them very palateable, rich, and nourishing.” [3]

On the southern mainland, okra became a staple vegetable of the diet of both blacks and whites. A testimony to its importance appeared in the Southern Agriculturist: “This vine vegetable appears no where to be so justly appreciated as in the neighborhood of Charleston—here it furnishes a portion of the daily food of . . . at least three-fourths of the inhabitants of the city during its season. In face, we know of no vegetable which is so generally used by both rich and poor, or which so justly merits the encomiums bestowed upon it. When served up, simply boiled, we admit it is not the most palatable vegetable we ever eat, but in the form of soup well boiled, with a proper supply of tomatoes, etc., we doubt whether it is excelled by any other in the world, either in flavor, wholesomeness, or nutiment.” [4]

From the first, the sliminess of the okra made it vulnerable to the judgments of taste. While the universal appreciation of the vegetable’s savoriness in soups won gumbos conspicuous notice in antebellum cookbooks, newspapers, and magazines, plain boiled or stewed okra remainder a southern dish. Most parts of the country in the mid-19th century enjoyed a fritter boom, with various fruits and vegetables fried, coated with batter, in lard or some other fat. Fried okra and okra fritters became a fixture of the post-Civil War culinary scene. What is surprising is that, despite the lively interest by regional cook book writers in pickles, that pickled okra recipes appear in number only during the last quarter of the 19th century. While commentators mention the existence of okra pickles during the antebellum period, no indication came into print that these pickles were anything other than pods soaked with vinegar with perhaps a hot pepper added for piquancy.

Despite its popularity in the southern kitchen, commentators felt that the vegetable deserved more esteem than it possessed. Cotton Planter reviewed the case for the vegetable on the eve of the Civil War: “I look upon this as the manna of the South, and I am only surprised that it is not more generally cultivated, cooked and eaten. If okra is boiled to serve up whole, it should never be cooked in iron, but in brass or porcelain. Okra should have a good portion of salt in the water that it is boiled in; when done tender, drain off the water that it is boiled in; and serve up with butter, pepper, etc. Okra is very good fried. Cut into thin slices and fry in lard or butter. A summer soup is not complete without okra—And some of these days I will tell your readers how to dry it, so as to have it in winter soups.[5]

1. G. J. H. Grubben, Vegetables: Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (Wageningen, NL: Backhuys Publishers, for the PROTA Foundation, 2004), p. 21.
2. Francis Peyre Porcher, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests (Charleston: Walker, Evans & Cogswell, 1869), p. 80.
3. John Lunan, Hortus Jamaicensis, 2 vols. (Jamaica: Office of the St. Jago de la Vega Gazette, 1814), p. 12.
4. “Okra,” Genesee Farmer 1, 27 (July 9, 1831), p. 211. Reprint of Southern Agriculturist article.
5. Cotton Planter, Southern Planter 17, 8 (August 1857), 462.


An extraordinary variety of okra varieties grew in the antebellum south: “the Round, Smooth Green, and the long fluted or ribbed white, which grow tall; also the dwarf.” [6] While farmers did not perceive any major taste difference between the sorts, the dwarf varieties were deemed most convenient for gardens, and the Long White was most esteemed for productivity. Of the heirloom varieties now available, the Chopee, a short pod, tender variety perfected by the Jacobs family of Georgetown, South Carolina, in the 1850s is the most versatile in its culinary uses. The long-podded Cowhorn was often grown for its seeds and more making coffee.

6. William N. White, Gardening for the South, or How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits (New York: Orange Judd and Co., 1868), p. 257.

Dwarf    History

Boiled Ochra (Dixie Cookery 1867)    History

Boil the young pods in water until tender, and dress with melted butter, vinegar, pepper, and salt. If you wish them for winter use, slice them very thin, and dry on dishes in the sun, and put away in paper bags. . Mrs. Barringer, Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed my Table for twelve years (Boston: Floring, 1867), P. 36.

Okra Fritters (Mrs. Elliott’s Housewife 1870)    History

Cut the okra in very thin slices, almost as thin as a wafer, make a batter of flour, egg, and water, or a little milk; put the okra in with a little salt, and fry them in hot lard. Mrs. Sarah A. Elliott, Mrs. Elliott’s Housewife (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1870), p. 106

Fried Okra Fritters (Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts 1870)    History

Strain a quart already boiled, mash it smooth, and season with salt and pepper; beat in one or two eggs and add flour enough to thicken into a paste; fried as fritters, and served upo a napkin hot, as fried. Sarah Annie Frost, Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints (Philadelphia: Evans, Stoddard Co., 1870), p. 184.

Okras Fried 1 (Mrs. Elliott’s Housewife 1870)    History

Cut them in thin cross slices, sprinkle meal over them, and fry crisp in hot lard. Mrs. Sarah A. Elliott, Mrs. Elliott’s Housewife (New York: Hurd & Houghton, 1870), p. 107.

Fried Okra 2 (American Kitchen Magazine 1897)    History

Boil fifteen pods of okra until tender in salted water enough to cover. Fry three slices of salt pork to a crisp brown. Drain all water from the okra, cut it up and fry for fifteen minutes with the meat, then remove meat and season with pepper. American Kitchen Magazine 7 (Home Science Publishing Co., 1897), p. 148.

Okra and Corn Fricassee (La Cuisine Creole 1885)    History

Put a pint of cut okra in a frying pan in which there is a cupful of hot lard, or the fat of side meat; let it fry a little, then cut into it a pint and a half oft corn; fry it until it is thoroughly cooked, pour off some of the grease, and dredge in a little flour, and a half-cup of milk; pepper and salt, to taste, must be added just before dishing it up. Lafcadio Hearn, La Cuisine Creole (New Orleans: F. F. Hansell & Bro., 1885), p. 85-86

Okra with Tomatoes (How to Cook Vegetables 1892)    History

1 quart of okra. 1 pint of tomatoes, 1 tablespoonful of butter, salt and pepper to taste

Wash the okra, cut it into thin slices; scald and peel the tomatoes and cut them into small pieces. Put the butter in a porcelain or granite kettle, add a teaspoonful of salt, cover the kettle and simmer gently half an hour. Then add the butter and serve very hot. Sarah Tyson Heston Rorer, How to Cook Vegetables (Philadelphia: Burpee, 1892), p. 64.

Okra Pickle (Instruction in Cooking 1895)    History

Select small pods of okra; gash each pod before putting into brine. 1 gallon container of pods. Make a brine strong enough to bear an egg. Keep the okra in this a week or ten days, then wash them in clear water and put them in plain vinegar to soak out the salt and greenish taste. Leave them in the vinegar until this taste is removed, then lay t hem out to dry. Add to them the 2 pounds of brown sugar, 1 gill black mustard seed, 1 gill white mustard seed, 1 tablespoon cloves, ½ pint crushed allspice, 1 gill crush pepper, 4 grated nutmegs, 3 pepper pods, 6 onions, and ½ point shredded horseradish; pour over all one gallon of vinegar. Put on the fire and scald until the okra are tender. Put into jars and seal white hot. Mrs. John W. Cringan, Instruction in Cooking with Selected Receipts (Richmond: J. L. Hill, 1895), pp. 310-11.

Okra Salad (Salads and Sauces 1884)    History

Boil a dozen okra-pods in slightly-salted water; when done drain and cool them in cold water; quarter them lengthwise, place them in a salad-bowl on a bed of chicory; add a plain dressing and a teaspoonful of chopped herbs. Okra may be procured at all seasons; the hot-house cultivators furnish the New York markets with it in winter at reasonable prices. Thomas J. Murrey, Salads and Sauces (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1884), p. 172.

SOUPS - Ochra Soup (Virginia Housewife 1838)    History

Get two double handsful of young ochra, wash and slice it thin, add two onions chopped fine, put it into a gallon of water at a very early hour in a an earthen pipkin, or very nice iron pot; it must be kept steadily simmering, but not boiling: put in pepper and salt. At 12 ‘oclock, put in a handful of Lima beans at half-pasat once o’clock, add three young cimlins cleaned and cut in small pieces, a fowl, or knuckle of veal, a bit of bacon or pork that has been boiled, and six tomatos, with the skin taken off; when nearly done, thicken with a spoonful of butter, mixed with one of flour Have rice boiled to eat with it. Mrs. Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook (Baltimore: Plaskitt, Fite & Co., 1838), pp. 17-18.

SOUPS - Gumbo Soup, a favorite New Orleans potage” (Southern Planter1847)    History

Take a fowl of good size, cut it up, season it with salt and pepper, and dredge it with flour. Take the soup kettle, and put in it a table spoonful of butter, one of lard, and one of onions chopped fine. Next fry the fowl till well browned and add four quarters of boiling water. The pot should now, being well covered, be allowed to simmer for a couple of hours. Then put in twenty or thirty oysters, a handful of chopped okra or gumbo, and a very little thyme, and let it simmer for half an hour longer. Just before serving it up, add about half a table spoonful of feelee powder. This soup is usually eaten with the addition of a little cayenne pepper, and is delicious. “Okra, and the Science of Soups,” Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste 2, 3 (September 1847), 118.

SOUPS - Southern Okra Soup (American Agriculturist 1850)    History

Very early in the morning, set the pot over the fire with a shin of beef, washed and picked clean, and ten quarts of cold water; add a tablespoonful of salt. When it boils, draw it from the fire, and carefully take off the scrum. If the scum should sink, it must be strained through a cloth that has been washed in scalding water to remove the unpleasant taste, a cloth is apt to communicate to hot liquids which pass through them. While the soup is boiling, throw in a peck of okra cut in slices, and three or four small onions. About an hour afterwards, add two quarts of tomatoes peeled, and cut in slices, throwing out the seeds. Season with pepper, and such herbs as suit your taste. Let it boil slowly until dinner time. Pick the bones and meat carefully out; cut up some of the gristle in short pieces, and return them to the soup; and then throw a few leaves of fresh parsley on it, after it is in the tureen. M. American Agriculturalist 9: 8 (Aug 1850), 259.

SOUPS - Gumbo Soup (Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book 1850)    History

Take a shin of veal and an old fowl; put them into a soup pot with two carrots and two turnips sliced, an onion whole, and six quarts of water; boil it five hours; take out the chicken and cut it into small pieces; cut two onions up in slices, fry them brown in butter; then take out the onion, and put in the pieces of chicken and fry them brown; put the onions into a saucepan, shake a little flour into the hot butter, stirring it all the time; care should be taken that this does not oil or burn. When this is done, put it in with the chicken; strain the soup into it, and boil it half an hour. Take three quarts of oysters, wash them out of the liquor, strain the liquor into the soup, put the oysters in, and let it boil up once; mix three table-spoonfuls of gumbo in half a pit of cold oysters, and a tumbler and a half of white wine; give it one boil, and set it to the table very hot. Mrs. Putnam’s Receipt Book (Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1850), pp. 8-9.

SOUPS - Gumbo Soup (Southern Cultivator 1859)    History

After your chicken is prepared, fry it to a nice brown color; season it with black pepper and salt; have a large soup-plate full of okra; chop fine, throw away the heads of the same, as they are hard. Always use the long white, it being more tender and better flavored than the other kinds; stir in this with the chicken; and it will partake of the taste and seasoning of the chicken. Fry it a little, and have ready some boiling water, pouring over, say three quarts, and allow a sufficient quantity to boil away; let all boil down until the chicken becomes perfectly tender, so that it may easily be torn to pieces with a fork. If fried, it requires more pepper and salt, which should be added before it is thoroughly cooked. The gumbo thus made will be very thick. If you do not like it made in this way, do not boil so much, as it spoils all kinds of soup to boil down and fill up again, as many do, with cold water, and besides it is never so rich. Have rice boiled tender, but be careful that the grains are separate. Of course, it is both wholesome and rich. Mrs. L. H. Wright, Southern Cultivator 17, 1 (January 1859), 30. [Extract from Mobile Mercury]

SOUPS - American Gumbo (Southern Planter 1857)    History

For a large family, take a peck of okra, cut it into thin slices, put it into a pot of cold water and start it to boiling. Now take two tender chickens, cut them up, and with a hammer or mallet, macerate the flesh and bones until almost a jelly; add this to the pot of okra; scald and peel a quart of full ripe tomatoes, and grate fine four ears of tender green corn, which add to the mass; stir frequently, to prevent burning. Season with fresh butter, pepper, and salt, and when nearly done, add a stalk of finely chopped celery, with a few sprigs of parsley and one onion; continue stirring, and when the mass becomes ropey and emits a grateful aromatic odor; serve up. If you would Frenchify the dish, add just before it is taken up, a gill of pure wine. Southern Planter 17, 8 (August 1857), 462.

SOUPS - Okra Soup 2 (Edgeworth 1860)    History

The pods are of a proper size when two or three inches long, but may be used while they remain tender; if fit for use, they will snap asunder at the ends, but if they merely bend, they are too old, and must be rejected; for a few of such pods will spoil a dish of soup.

Take one peck, cut them across into very thin slices, not exceeding one-eight of an inch in thickness, but as much thinner as possible, as the operation is accelerated by their thinness; to this quantity of okra add about one-third a peck of tomatoes, which are first pealed and cut into pieces. This quantity can be increased or diminished, as may suit the taste of those for whom it is intended. A coarse piece of beef (a shin is generally made use of) is placed in a digester, with about two and a half gallons of water, and a very small quantity of salt. It is permitted to boil for a few moments, when the scum is taken off, and the okra and tomatoes thrown in.

These are all the ingredients absolutely necessary, and the soup thus made is remarkably fine. We, however, usually add some corn cut off from the tender roasting ears: the grains from three ears will be enough for the above quantity: we sometimes take about half a pint of Lima beans. Both of these improve the soup, but not so much as to make them indispensable; so far from it, that few add them. The most material thing to be attended to is the boiling, and the excellence of the soup depends almost entirely on this being faithfully done: for, if it be not boiled enough, however well the ingredients may have been selected, the soup will be very inferior, and give little idea of the delightful flavor it possesses when properly done. I have already directed that the ingredient be placed in a digester. This is decidedly the best vessel for boiling this, or any other soup in, but should there be no digester, then an earthen pot should be prepared; but on no account make use of an iron one, as it would turn the whole soup of a black color; the proper color being green, colored with the rich yellow of the tomatoes.

The time which is usually occupied in boiling okra soup is five hours. We put it on at 9 a.m, and take it off about 2 p.m., during the whole of which time it is kept boiling briskly; the cook at the same time stirring it frequently, and mashing the different ingredients. By the time it is taken off, it will be reduced to about one half; but as on the operation of the boiling being well and faithfully executed depends its excellence, I will state the criterion by which this is judged of:--the meat separates entirely from the bone, being done to rags, the whole appears as one homogenous mass, in which none of the ingredients are seen distinct, the object of this long boiling being thus to incorporate them. Its consistence should be about that of thick porridge. (Pp. 135-136).

SOUPS - Ochra Soup 3 (Dixie Cookery 1867)    History

Take three pounds of fresh lean beef, or a fine fat chicken, and simmer in a gallon and a half of water for two hours. Skim off the fat and season with salt and pepper. Cut up a small portion of the meat, and return it to the soup. Add a teacupful of sliced green ochra or a half a teacupful of dried ochra, and a teacupful of tomatoes peeled and sliced. Boil until the meat is in shreds, and the vegetables are all to pieces. Mrs. Barringer, Dixie Cookery: or How I Managed my Table for twelve years (Boston: Floring, 1867), p. 7

SOUPS - Northern Ochra Soup (Cookery as it Should Be 1856)    History

Take a pint of young tender ochras, wash and slice them, chop two onions finely, and put these into a gallon of water; skin and slice a half a pint of tomatoes; add a small piece of garden pepper—a very little piece will answer,__and half a teaspoonful of salt; put all on to cook at seven o’clock in the morning, and let it simmer until noon; then add a large handful of Lima beans. At half past one, add two young squashes, cleaned carefully and cut into small pieces. A knuckle of veal washed and broken and put in, (or a pair of chickens is better,) and a piece of cold, cooked pork or bacon. Let this all boil gently for an hour and a half, and then take out all the meat, and rub together one large spoonful of flour and one of butter, and stir into the souop. The fowls are served with egg sauce. Be careful to remove all scum from the soup while cooking. Boil some rice very dry and serve with the soup. The knuckle of veal is very nice dished with drawn butter and parsley. This preparation of soup has been timed for a three o’clock dinner. Avoid the use of an iron spoon or ladle in skimming or stirring the ochras. A Practical Housekeeper and pupil of Mrs Goodfellow, Cookery as it Should Be (Philadelphia: Willis P. Hazard, 1856), p. 74

SOUPS - Okra and Rice Soup (Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion 1887)    History

The materials required are two quarts of chicken stock, one quart of green okra, one uncooked tomato or four table-spoonfuls of stewed tomato, two table-spoonfuls of chopped onion, two of flour, three of butter, one fourth of a cupful of rice, half a teaspoonful of pepper, three teaspoonfuls of salt. Cook the butter and onion together for three minutes; then add the flour, and stir until smooth and brown. Heat the stock, and add this mixture to it; then add the tomato, salt, and pepper, and simmer for an hour. Wash the rice in three waters, and put it into a large stew-pan. Wash the okra carefully, and after cutting off the ends of the pods, cut the remaining parts into thin slices. Put the okra into the stew-pan with the rice. Place a coarse strainer over the stew-pan, and pour the liquid mixture through it; then cover the soup, and let it simmer for an hour or more. Taste it, to ascertain whether there is a proper amount of seasoning, before serving. Maria Parloa, Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion (Boston: Clover Publishing, 1887), pp. 132-33.