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Monday, June 6, 2016

The love language of Okra



Nana loved me.
So much.
Nana's "pinup" photo that she had taken just for Grandpa before he left for Korea. She was a bit embarrassed by this photo 'cause really it was so out of character for her. 
She told me she had it taken because she didn't want him to forget her... 
or be looking around at other women!
As a girl I visited Nana and Grandpa's regularly. I was their oldest grandchild and for a brief while their only grandchild. To say they adored me would be an understatement. My days at their home were filled with ice cream, a cookie in each hand, Gilligan's Island and generally being cherished every moment I was in their care. Nana was a southern woman born in Arizona. She was a military wife who raised 2 children and eventually returned with her own family to the very same land she grew up on, the land her family homesteaded, with her brother and his family living next door to her and her mom living next door to that. Tess shares her middle name.

Nana had a 1-acre, vegetable garden in the front of her house with poppies and hollyhocks mixed in, 'cause even a vegetable garden should be pretty, right? Let's not say that Nana was a hoarder, but that as many who grew up in the depression era, I think she believed in self-sustained existence. She shopped at the commissary the rest of her life, had multiple freezers full of freezer-burned sale items and canned everything that could be canned, including an over abundance of salmon that Grandpa caught annually. As a young adult, I didn't leave Nana and Grandpa's house without a bag of canned goods that originated from either her garden or his fishing pole.

Nana's love language was food. I don't think that's what Gary Chapman had in mind when he wrote the book, but it's true in this case. I think Nana spent the majority of her life in her kitchen. She taught me how to make all types of candies for the holidays, including taffy, caramels, peanut brittle, divinity, toffee, fudge, and chocolate covered everything. For every holiday she made a ridiculous amount of pies, at least half a dozen for our family gathering, but also one for each of the neighbors, school teachers, her doctor, the mailman and certainly one for every family member to take home. She made the most incredible homemade sour dough rolls, and she made it look easy to make them, which I've tried to make many times and cannot replicate. She fried everything including Rocky Mountain oysters that came in 5 gallon buckets from some source we dare not investigate. And yes, I learned to like Rocky Mountain oysters before I knew what they were. Nana was the type of woman that never sat down to a meal. Instead she continued to cook and serve her family the whole time. Only when everyone was done did her sit down by herself with a plate of food. Then she'd wash all the dishes by herself as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

As a little girl I remember Nana taking me to her garden and looking at the green beans, corn, black-eyed peas, eggplant, okra, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and more. I lifted the leaves and especially looked for the okra. I loved the okra. I longed for Nana's fried okra. And if I found any that was big enough to be picked, Nana encouraged me to do it, and then we returned back to her messy kitchen to fry it up southern style just for me. I remember her cast iron skillet that was so heavy that I wondered how she could pick it up with just one hand. I remember the smell of bacon grease. I remember standing back just a little because the grease splattered everywhere including on Nana's blistered hands and flour and corn meal on just about every surface. I remember waiting impatiently as the okra was taken out of the skillet until it was cool enough to eat. And although I don't think I knew it explicitly at the time, I knew I felt her love for me through that okra. And I remembered how she'd shoo me away when I was a bit older and tried to wash the dishes when the cooking was done.

Sadly, the garden that was on the land that 3 generations of my family lived on is now gone. As is Nana. She's not here to teach me how to make candy, homemade sourdough rolls or fried okra anymore. But that doesn't stop me from craving her love language and her southern fried okra. Because I thankfully inherited the same love language as my grandmother, I set about to try and make fired okra just like hers, or at least as close as I could get to it. I believe food is powerful and can can be used in good ways. I wanted to pass down that type of love to my own family. I found a recipe that looked promising. I tweaked it. Thankfully I already have a cast iron skillet that is well "seasoned" because I use it often. I added a bit more salt. At first I was making it all on my own. But soon The Man Child was hungry and curious, and he started helping me chop. And then Liv came in because she doesn't like to be left out of anything and helped batter the okra. The littles smelled the goodness, got curious and decided to hang out in the kitchen until it was their turn to taste. And I'm pretty sure I was the happiest mom in the world in those moments as my family came together in the kitchen... just as I had done with Nana decades before. In the end I think came up with something that tasted like what I first loved 35 years ago. Cornmeal, crunchy, slightly salty, finger food okra snackies of yumminess!
The kids liked it... well most some of them liked it more than others. It is okra after all, and if they all loved it I'd be suspicious that none of them actually did, and they were just humoring me. But they all tried it at least a few times, and that's all I needed to be happy. Plus, it left plenty for me to snack on!
Quite the mess!
My favorite Christmas gift this year was from my papa, an old grease pot for bacon drippings!
I had been wanting one for years! I think Nana would have loved that I have and use one. 
One thing was very different though in my own kitchen as compared to Nana's. The mess. Now, in retrospect, I know that Nana's kitchen was a mess, but I didn't have to clean it because I was a child! My kitchen was a wreck, and I was going to have to clean it up myself this time. There was cornmeal and flour covering every surface including the floor. Grease splatters, ingredients, knives and cutting boards strewn about. The mess made sense now, and I was so consciously aware of it. Her love for me shined through in the mess. And I was the one that cleaned it up this time in my own kitchen. As my children munched, I washed dishes, wiped down the counters, and told them stories about my childhood first picking then eating okra from Nana's garden. Hoping my love would subconsciously shine through. I wouldn't have had it any other way. Neither would Nana. It was our love language to do it for them.

And now, even more than before I fried up my own okra, I am reminded that...

Nana loved me.
So very much.

4 comments:

  1. A wonderful read, Nancy.

    Frying okra can be messy~~~so whenever I'm in a cafeteria (down here in the South), I always buy a couple of plates ~~just like potato chips, can't stop at eating only one. Grocery stores sell pickled okra - pickled in hot peppers~ spicy and tasty. Yes, fresh okra is a favorite in the summer. Steamed, fried, pickled, or cooked in gumbo. Maybe we can try chocolate-covered okra next?

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    Replies
    1. oh pickled okra, Nana did that too! I think I was the only one way back then that liked it. Haven't had it in a long time!

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  2. We love Okra here at our house too! My grandma came from the south and passed the love onto my mother who then passed it onto me!

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  3. Oh my, your beautiful Nana lives on in your Liv! Carbon Copies!

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