This Old Hausfrau grew up in the Northeast, specifically, in southern Connecticut, and this means many things in many ways, but probably not what the average American who might get lost and land here might think.
I did not grow up eating WASP home cooking, as it had evolved to be by the 1970s; there were no tuna noodle casseroles or Jell-O salads or desserts in my upbringing, unless they were served to me at school. I am the child of New Yorkers, who came to Connecticut in the 1960s, and I grew up in a college town. Hence, as my brother once observed, we were weaned on won ton soup (there were at least three decent and two excellent Chinese restaurants within a five block radius of our apartment building). I thought bagels and bialys and knishes were normal; I never once regarded Italian food as “ethnic” food — I really don’t understand it when people have a hard time twirling spaghetti; and while I knew there were people who ate lobsters and clams and oysters, I grew up eating none of these things, because my parents, while perhaps not particularly observant of the laws of Kashrut, never served these things at home or urged us to consider eating them when out in the world. I cannot prove it but I believe that the only way I ever ate clams, until I was in my 20s, was by having them on white clam pizzas from Sally’s or Pepe’s in Wooster Square. (And if you don’t know about white clam pizza, I urge you to do a Google search, and that’s all I’m saying about that right now.)
One other thing that was entirely foreign to me was okra. To say I grew up in an okra-free household is a vast understatement. I imagine if you’d asked my mother, “Can we have okra for dinner tonight?” she’d have responded by asking, “What’s okra?” and then pressing her hand to your forehead and asking if you felt okay. It was not served in any restaurant I can remember going to in my youth, it was not served in the homes of any of my friends. As I grew up and began to read cookbooks I grasped that many people regarded okra as a normal thing, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20s and a place called Jaylyn’s Fried Chicken opened on Park Street in New Haven that I understood what this was all about.
Jaylyn’s had two booths you could sit at; it was really a takeout place. They had excellent fried chicken, but the reason I went there (and I went there often) was that they had the best sides in town. It was kind of embarrassing to order food there because I didn’t really want the chicken. What I wanted was biscuits and macaroni and cheese (which was not Kraft, but some seriously good stuff of the béchamel school) and greens and FRIED OKRA. They would sell you a Chinese takeout box of fried okra; you could get a small carton for two dollars and a big carton for $3.50 and believe me I always got the big carton, after realizing that the small carton was simply not sufficient.
Jaylyn’s closed, and I’ve never found another place nearby where I could get fried okra. I can now occasionally find good okra dishes on the menus in Indian restaurants, but it hasn’t yet reached the tables of the fancier joints in town. No pizza place has decided to put okra on their pies (which is understandable) and the gastropub type places haven’t decided to add fried okra to their lists of appetizers, on the theory that if people will eat fried pickles, by God, they’ll surely eat fried okra.
And frozen okra, I learned the hard way, is pretty vile.
So I have been leading a largely okra-free existence for the last fifteen years or so. The occasional treat, when I can get it. But not much okra. The Gourmensch doesn’t like it, so I don’t cook it at home. But a few months ago, on a shelf of jarred specialty items at the local Italian grocery store, among the jars of giardiniera and pickled onions and pickled eggplant, I noticed a fat, obviously not-from-Italy, jar of pickled okra. I automatically reached for it and brought it home. I had this idea: wouldn’t it be great to use these as a garnish in mixed drinks?
But not everyone agreed with me. And so the jar languished in the cabinet, until the inevitable day when I finally decided, “Damnit, I’m just going to eat these things on their own, for the sheer pleasure of it.” And I offered one to my daughter, who takes after her father, and loves most pickled things.
“Yuck,” she said, turning her head.
“Dude, you can’t be serious,” I said. “These things are great.”
“No!” she said. “Can I have some crackers?”
Months went by. Once in a while, when I was really hungry but didn’t want to eat something substantial because it was too close to dinner, I would take the jar out of the fridge and eat maybe two or three pieces of pickled okra, thinking of Julia Child. Apparently, when she was starved between meals, she would eat a dill pickle or two to stave off the hunger pangs. It does seem to work — you don’t eat a lot of pickle, but just a little will keep you going.
The jar’s contents dwindled. I was down to the last six okra pods a few days ago when I pulled out the jar; I was cooking dinner and needed to eat something lest I start eating large hunks of cheese intended for the macaroni and cheese I was preparing. My daughter was sitting nearby and saw me pull out a pickle and bite into it. She heard the crunch. “What’re you eating?” she asked.
“Okra,” I said. “Pickled okra.” I took another bite. “These are so good, it’s ridiculous.”
“Yuck,” she said.
“No way. You do NOT know what you’re talking about,” I said, biting into another piece. “Plus,” I added, “they’re cute. Look!” I showed her how when you bite into it, it looks like a little bitty wagon wheel inside.
“What is it like?” she asked me.
“It’s sharp and a little bit crunchy, but not crispy like a potato chip; and then the seeds kind of crunch in your teeth,” I said. “Do you want to try a little bite?”
She nodded, but slowly. I held out a pod and she took a tiny bite. She looked unconvinced. But then she asked for a second bite. I let her have one, and then I popped the rest of the pod into my mouth. I saw her look longingly at the jar.
“Do you want a whole one for yourself?” I asked. She nodded. I pulled one out and gave it to her, and then I noticed at the bottom of the jar was one very small, baby okra pod that had somehow fallen to lay flat across the bottom, instead of standing upright like the rest of the okra.
“And I tell you what,” I said. “You can have the last one, that little baby at the bottom.” She smiled at that. I fished it out for her and she gobbled up the okra pods.
The jar was finished. She looked at it and asked, “Will you buy more?”
I said I would. “In the meantime,” I said, “what if we sliced up a cucumber and put it in the jar to soak in the okra pickle brine?”
She thought this was an excellent idea, and we’ve been eating those cucumber slices up. Now the cucumber slices are gone, and today she announced to me, as I sliced another cucumber, that at Thanksgiving, we ARE, ABSOLUTELY, going to have pickled okra and pickled cucumber slices on the table.
Fair warning. Now, if only we can get the Gourmensch on board.