Okra, the Vegetable of Survival

The vegetable of my ancestors brings healing during the global pandemic

Kayla Stewart
Heated
Published in
4 min readSep 21, 2020

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A close-up of a stack of okra.
Photo: BR/500px/Getty Images

Okra is the food of my ancestors, who were pulled from their homes in Africa. It was grown by those enslaved along the Carolinas, and devoured by them in Louisiana. Okra is a constant in my familial story — one that includes deep memories and gaping holes of history.

It was inevitable that okra became my staple vegetable in my New York kitchen. I realized its importance when my Louisianan mother would get fresh okra from a nearby farm in Missouri City, Texas. I’d put on my denim OshKosh B’gosh overalls and hop in our two-door truck to help her get cases of the vegetable. Once we brought them to our Houston home, she’d do the magic that only Black women could do: okra mix (commonly called okra stew) was our family’s favorite. Occasionally, fried okra would pop up on the dinner table. Stewed okra with tomatoes was a constant, too, especially on busier evenings.

Okra mix is especially versatile; it’s suitable as a Sunday dinner or a celebratory meal. It was often the meal of choice to welcome my older siblings home from college and to signify love and comfort to a family member in town. It was also there for the hard times: I’d often find my mom in the kitchen cutting tops off of okra with the news playing on the TV in the living room. A national tragedy, racial turmoil, or a personal family event could propel okra mixes like no other, seemingly prepared with additional love, care, and need.

Whether helping my mom to prepare the okra or dutifully eating dinner at the table, I noted that we were often having okra during family dinners that started with silence and ended in some discussion that made me aware of the gravity of the world. Okra, surrounded by seafood and andouille sausage, made it easier to digest the world around me.

It was a stressful grocery trip when I saw a near-empty frozen vegetable section, with bags of okra being the only green vegetable in abundance.

And it’s essential now. My sister and I opted to stay in the city during the Covid-19 outbreak, both to protect my parents and maintain a sense of obligation to a…

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Kayla Stewart
Heated
Writer for

Kayla Stewart is a freelance journalist from Houston, and is currently based in Harlem.