My great grandmother, Elizabeth Armenia Dobbs, was a colorful woman to say the least. For example, there was the time she dropped a quarter on the steps next to the family rooster who immediately swallowed it. Both quarters and roosters were valuable back then. She snatched up the rooster, cut open its crop, took the quarter back, and sewed him up. What makes this story so amazing is that the rooster lived and sired many little chicks afterward. Another time she marched over to a neighbor’s home where two children were being beaten and took the children away from the mother to protect them. She was clearly a woman of a different time.
Growing up, my favorite family story about her, however, was not one of amazing surgical skills or bravery, but the one about her and her spittoon. She was a huge fan of snuff, finely powdered tobacco that was the usual form used by dignified women back in her time. The snuff is held in one’s cheek, and the flavor slowly seeps out. It’s a very strong flavor so, how can I say it delicately—I can’t—she had to spit a lot. Snuff users keep a spittoon handy. Great Grandmother’s spittoon was shaped like a rotund Englishman in a three-cornered hat and was called Toby.
A Toby Jug
As she shelled peas, braided rugs, or sewed children’s clothing, she would sit on the front porch with Toby. She was responsible for six children of her own and a boarding house on top of it, so it was probably the only time in her day she had time to relax—if you can call such handwork relaxing. I don’t know why I was so enamored of this story as a child. Perhaps it was that we still had the Toby jug, which by then sat on a windowsill holding a philodendron. Or perhaps it was just a childhood fascination with anything gross. I suspect the main reason was a saying that my grandmother, Mama Gene, took from her mother’s habit. When Mama Gene would taste something that she really really liked, she would declare, “It’s better than snuff and not half as dusty.” To this day I love the saying; I’ve adopted it as my own even though I have no idea what snuff is like, nor do I have any inclination to find out.
Fried okra is one thing that is definitely “Better than snuff and not half as dusty.” It has to be cooked properly to qualify for the accolade, but, believe me, it’s worth learning how to do it. When properly prepared it’s crispy, flavorful and hard to stop munching on—very much like popcorn. And like so many foods I like, the preparation of fried okra has been handed down from my great-grandmother, to my grandmother, to my father, and on to me. Of course, the recipe goes back farther than that to when my English ancestors migrated to America, but I can trace it only to Great Grandmother.
I use corn flour, not the usual corn meal in the coating. Corn flour gives the same great corn flavor as corn meal, but because it’s ground finer it sticks better, and the result is a crisper coating. I say this recipe serves four people, because a half cup of fried okra is technically a serving, and this recipe calls for one bag or two cups of okra. That’s not really enough for even one true southerner. Most of us could nibble this much by ourselves just while we were frying up enough for everyone else. Feel free to double or triple this recipe. People will be happy if you do.
Fried Okra – Click here for a printer-friendly version of this recipe
Corn flour or masa harina is widely available, in particular the brand Maseca. If you cannot find corn flour you can use corn meal.
2 cups okra, cut into half inch pieces (about one bag frozen)
½ cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup corn flour (masa harina)
½ cup all-purpose flour
oil for frying
In a small bowl, combine cut okra, salt, pepper and buttermilk.
Let sit for about five minutes then drain into a strainer. In another larger bowl combine corn flour and flour.
Toss okra into flour mixture. Working with your hands or a fork, separate the pieces of okra so that all the pieces get covered. Depending on how wet your okra is, you may need to add a little more flour and/or corn flour.
Heat one inch of oil in a large heavy-duty pan over medium-high heat. Test the oil by adding one piece of okra; it should bubble immediately as soon as you add it to the pot (350 F).
When the oil is hot, add the okra (you may need to cook it in two batches). Fry, occasionally rotating until light golden brown.
Remove to a pan lined with newspaper and paper towels. Lightly salt and serve hot. You can fry the okra ahead of time then heat it up in a hot oven for five minutes right before serving. A convection oven is very helpful if you want to get it back to the original crispiness.