"Cut in wheels and fried in meal." My Mammaw’s reference to a pan of fried okra. It was a wonderful introduction to a lovely vegetable, and served to be my introduction to oysters, as well. I'd SEEN those hideous gray/black little quivery creatures, and could not imagine that anyone had ever got up the nerve to eat one. But fried, they looked OK....doesn't most anything? Everyone said, "Try one---see, it's just like fried okra." And it kind of was.
And okra is just scrumptious. Gently steamed on top of a pot of field peas with a big hunk of ham or bacon, the tiny pods tender and melty to the tongue, with some of the flavor of that smoky pot of peas. Wheeled and fried in either meal or flour, a mixture of both, or even one of those fishfry mixes in a pinch (or in someone else's kitchen). Tiny circles afloat in the rich brown-red gumbo, holding their own amongst the sea-tang of the shrimp and crab, adding a deep earthy flourish to the dish.
Or as oddly as my Mammaw cooked it, a strangely concocted dish of pods, stems intact, steamed and THEN meal-rolled and fried and spoked round the plate, the daintily-arranged golden delicacies with their long greeny-brown bodies and tails arrayed like a lizard pinwheel. The outside was crisp, salty, perfect, then the melting, creamy interior richness. Never had it that way before or since. Guess it was her own recipe.
And pickled!!!---salty and crisp and tangy with good vinegar and the snap of red pepper. I watched admiringly once as a lady who was to be our hostess at a cocktail party in her suite at a VERY grand hotel in Washington unpacked a small case. It was red leather with shiny brass fittings, and looked worthy of jewels or State secrets or at least caviar. To go with the lovely spread and bar she had ordered from the hotel, out of the case came three pretty home-canned jars from her own Southern garden. One of thumb-sized baby green eggplants, brined with garlic and herbs, and two pints of pickled okra.
My own great liking for okra (sometimes pronounced okry by some folks in my neck of the woods) was cause for an irate reaction, a considerable grudge against two of my Mother's friends, and the very first lightbulb moment in my love affair with words when I was about six. I made up little poems and stories and scenes, carefully crafting the rhyme and meter and plots, and had been reading avidly since I was four.
That great gift of reading had come to me courtesy of Mrs. Cooley, a lovely woman across the "road" (our smalltown synonym for "street" in my childhood).
She was Mother to four husky, rowdy boys, all yells and fists and elbows, and I think she valued our quiet days of books and words as much as I, in the quiet of her smoky, cluttered living room with all the books stacked round the walls and the dust motes falling like snowflakes in the narrow sunbeams squinting between the musty drapes.
She had introduced me to BOOKS---places and people unknown, and I will bless and value her all my days. I had developed quite a vocabulary, and though I knew not the meaning of syntax and was just grasping the definition of grammar, I had quite a firm standard for my own sentences. Pronunciation, however, was another matter. Just the reading of a word, without having heard it in its proper inflection, can make for some strange syllables.
The two neighbor women were standing beside a flowerbed in one's yard, and I was playing on the lawn with the daughter of the house. We were well-raised children, taught not to interrupt our elders, but when one mentioned okra, I burst in with my own enthusiastic endorsement, "I LOVE okree!!"
They burst out laughing, and I rose, highly insulted, and did my chubby little best to stalk off in righteous indignation, thinking they were making fun of my contribution. Before I could reach the road, one said, "We were just mentioning it's not correct to say you ‘love’ any food."
I wanted so badly to ask them if it wasn’t time to take their brooms in for an oil change. I DID like okra that much. And still do.
Someday, all those people who say eeeeeewwwwwww at the mere mention of okra will wake up and see CNN announcing that scientists have discovered that okra is a combination of Botox, Viagra and SlimFast, and what will they say THEN, HUH? THEN we'll see who's been right all along.
Crispy, crispy little wheeeeels. . . . .