Okra Angst, Be Gone!

Homemade breaded okra? Don't even fry it.

Three strikes and you're out?

Seems like every year or so, without even trying, I make an East Tennessee food statement that just flies all over the general populace. In 2008, I admitted I preferred unsweetened tea with Sweet'N Low to its sugary cousin. You can imagine the reaction. In 2009, I revealed I could take or leave biscuits, and a mixture of public pity, scorn, and disbelief ensued.

This year, I think it's going to be okra. Oh, no, no, no. Not that. I love okra. I just don't think that anyone who doesn't already know how needs to learn to fry it at home. It's just not worth it, people! You'll have nothing to show at the end but little blips of burned corn meal and smoking-oil smells and grassy, chewy okra pellets with raw batter clinging to the inner folds and leftover buttermilk taking up permanent residence in the fridge.

Oh yeah, and some super-high caliber humorous material for Facebook posts, which is how I know irrefutably that anyone who attempts to fry okra after attaining age 23 1/2 is doomed to fail. There are a few exceptions besides youth, but before you get all dewy-eyed and imagine you might be one, note you'd have to be able to meet at least two of these criteria: 1. You own a second- to third-generation cast iron skillet that 2. Comes with a patient forebear willing to let you into their kitchen who is 3. Commonly called MeMaw or Paps or Aunt Sister or something in that vein. Or, 4. You once drank a glass of buttermilk with a meal, outside a gang or Greek organization initiation. And/or 5. You want, no make that need, to eat fried okra more than once a week, perhaps due to pregnancy cravings.

Honestly, if none of those apply, how's about you just eat fried okra from (drum roll please) a local dining establishment? They have the rituals down, and the trained staff, and the commercial grade oil, and are already making it for all sorts of other diners, so why fight it? Pete's Coffee Shop, for example, serves delectable deep-fried okra morsels as a plate lunch side dish choice Tuesdays and Thursdays. I called Pete's wife, Rita Natour, and she said they fix it right there. Just like that, she told me, "We bread it ourselves." Like it's nothing, like a person couldn't spend a day trying to bread okra, yielding drips of egg and milk all over the counter and bits of batter sliding off before it ever reaches the oil, or have the whole thing merge into a kind of giant okra pancake with too much baking powder.

Chandler's Deli also does a bang-up job with okra; and the Diner in Sevierville has a gently pan-fried, perfectly salt-and-peppered version that will make you wistful. But you need not go far out of your way to get a dose: Cracker Barrel and even, gasp, Captain D's, make creditable versions.

Now, getting back to the list of the exceptions. Note I do not ask, "Do you have a bevvy of okra pods festooning the garden, or peeking out of your natural-fiber farmer's market shopping bag?" Because that's irrelevant. There are other delicious ways to prepare okra that do not call lineage into question; even a casual cook can make a little stewed side dish, for example. You just slice some tender little pods— no longer than 4 inches—into rounds, and saute them with minced garlic in some olive oil. To this add diced fresh or canned crushed tomatoes and some scrubbed, cubed new potatoes, and simmer it up until the potatoes are tender in some vegetable broth and a little wine. Divine, and no mentor or ability to differentiate between corn meal and Jiffy corn meal mix required.

If you've still got leftover okra after that, might I suggest pickling? Seriously, pickled okra is easy to do and it's food of the gods. But I think I'll wait and bring that up in 2013. By then, I'll be due for Strike Four.


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