Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Cheering on the Fighting Okra and the Lowly Green Vegetable

As a child, I never encountered okra unless disguised or unknowingly snuck into something like canned soup. I was simply unaware of its existence. I grew up in the 1950s, and my mother served us basic meat and potato meals, plus the popular Campbell's soups: chicken noodle when sick, tomato soup when eating a grilled cheese sandwich and vegetable soup during the winter. Mom admittedly was not the best cook, and her repertoire of fresh vegetables consisted of iceberg lettuce, celery, carrots and potatoes, corn on the cob, and tomatoes added in the summer. Frozen vegetables that supplemented our diet became peas, corn, mixed vegetables, succotash, and the unpopular, lima beans.

A package of fresh okra.
A package of fresh okra.

I first encountered okra in my forties, in gumbo, but steered clear of ever buying or preparing it. I then signed up for a Cajun Cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking, and okra dominated the class menu. I picked up a fresh piece and discovered for the first time that it wasn't slimy on the outside, just on the inside. I also learned that okra is technically a fruit, and that one serving offers two grams of protein and only 33 calories—this means almost 25 percent of the calories come right from protein.
New Orleans School of Cooking
New Orleans School of Cooking

Since then, I've gradually grown to love the lowly green vegetable, especially when roasted or cut lengthwise and sautéed lightly in olive oil with a dusting of creole spice.

Imagine my surprise when I ran into a "Fighting Okra" tee-shirt while touring the Mississippi Delta in late 2019. Delta State University in Cleveland claims okra as its unofficial mascot. How fun I thought and undoubtedly politically correct.
The Fighting Okra
Photo Courtesy of Delta State University

Upon further investigation, I learned that Delta State's official team mascot remains the Statesmen, but one hardly thinks of statesmen as frightening. Seems several urban legends linger as to how the "Fighting Okra" appeared, one claims the mascot arose from a stubborn okra plant on the baseball diamond. Another tale points to needing a mean and green mascot. The most popular says he was born from an inside joke in the student body, hinting that the Statesmen weren't intimidating. Whatever the case, in the mid-1990s, a student vote was taken, resulting in the university taking on "The Fighting Okra" as an unofficial mascot. Fear the okra!

Debi proudly wears a Fighting Okra tee.
Debi proudly wear a Fighting Okra tee. 

At this point, I was thigh high into mascot research and discovered that okra is not the only vegetable mascot. The Scottsdale Community College touts a Fighting Artichoke. Artie the Artichoke was a victory for students who rebelled against a more boring mascot that had administration blessings.

Then, I found more oddball mascots like the Big Red the Hilltopper of Western Kentucky University, SuperFrog, the Horned Frog: Texas Christian University, the Banana Slug of UC Santa Cruz. Back in 1926, the students from the University of Miami chose Sebastian the Ibis as the unofficial mascot. The most bizarre has to be Rhode Island School of Design's Scrotie the Penis: And his battle cry is "Go Nads!"

For information on travel in the Mississippi Delta:

If you've never fixed okra, and after all is a food blog, I offer the most simple recipe, but it is truly delicious and healthy.

(I initially learned from Martha Shulman Rose's recipe from the NY Times)

Roasted okra on a baking sheet
Roasted okra

About 1 pound fresh okra (or a package)
2 Tablespoons or less olive oil
Salt, pepper, thyme or creole spice

Preheat the oven to 400- 450 degrees. If you don't want the okra to brown as much, set the oven at 400 degrees.
Washed okra drying on a kitchen towel.
Washed okra drying on a kitchen towel. 

Rinse the okra and drain on a kitchen towel. The okra should be dry. Trim away the stem ends and the tips, just the very ends. I prefer the whole okra, but you can slice in half. Place the okra in a large bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, and toss with the olive oil until coated.

Okra ready for roasting. 

Lift the okra from the bowl, leaving behind any excess oil. Place on a sheet pan in one layer. I use a Silpat liner to make clean up easy. Sprinkle on any additional spices you like.

Roast in the oven for 15-20 minutes (large okra might take a little longer), shaking the pan every five minutes. The okra should be lightly browned and tender, with a pleasant seared aroma.

Roasted okra nicely browned.
Roasted okra nicely browned. 

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