A Dish That Reflects Our Nation: Okra Soup

A lovely effect of the serious, much-needed changes happening in food media is that they have brought many new voices to the surface. After reading a powerful essay in Food & Wine by Amethyst Ganaway about the ongoing role of food as a tool of resistance in the Black community — whether through smuggling seeds, stealing provisions from plantation owners, gardening or feeding protesters — I started following her on social media, only to realize that she’s Gullah Geechee, a direct descendant of people enslaved on the lower Atlantic coast.

“One of the most important things about the Gullah Geechee tradition,” Ganaway explained, when I called to learn more about her culinary heritage, “is that, unlike other parts of the African diaspora, we were able to maintain our direct ties to West Africa — we use the same words and ingredients, and we even have similar spiritual traditions.” Raised largely by her grandmother in North Charleston, S.C., Ganaway is a cook and writer on a personal journey to learn more about her family history by connecting more deeply with the culinary traditions in which her ancestors’ recipes are rooted.

When I asked her to share a meaningful family recipe with me, she didn’t hesitate: okra soup, a simple yet underappreciated Gullah Geechee specialty. “We always had a house full of people,” she said, “and it’s one of those things, where if you’ve got a pot of rice and a big pot of okra soup, you’re really going to eat well for the next couple of days.” Okra soup is not necessarily Louisiana-style gumbo, thick with roux and rich with sausage and shrimp. Rather, it’s a simple, wholesome dish that, like the best Gullah Geechee cooking, emphasizes the freshness of its ingredients — the hardest part of the recipe is impatiently waiting for the broth to cook while it fills your house with the heavenly aromas of smoke and meat.

A few days after I spoke with Ganaway, I realized as I scanned the ingredient list that every single item reflected the history of not only Ganaway’s family but Gullah Geechee folks in general, beginning with the smoked turkey at the base of her fragrant broth. I was surprised that she used poultry, rather than ham hock, until she explained that her grandmother joined the Nation of Islam while living in New York in the 1970s. “Come to find out there’s a very strong West African and Sufi presence in the Lowcountry,” Ganaway said, referring to the geographic and cultural region along South Carolina’s coast that includes the Sea Islands. “When my grandmother started attending a Sufi mosque that was predominantly West African, I started to recognize all of the similarities in our foods.”

The West African influence continues with rice, which Ganaway insisted the Gullah Geechee “always, always, always” eat with okra soup. “It’s important to note that the enslaved people from West Africa were specifically brought to the Lowcountry because of their knowledge of how to grow rice.” The rice grains themselves traveled the Middle Passage along with the kidnapped West Africans. Called nkru-ma in Ghanaian Twi, the soup’s eponymous okra, too, came from Africa on those ships.

The key to okra soup is its consistency — it shouldn’t be too thin — and purists discourage the use of added starch to thicken the soup. As Ganaway advised, “The okra will naturally thicken the broth, and the fresher it is, the better it’ll do the job.” And while neither Ganaway nor I have an aversion to okra’s mucilaginous quality (in fact, we both love it), it doesn’t come much into play in this soup, because the vegetable is cooked for only about 10 minutes, leaving it tender but not slimy, while the pod’s caviar-like seeds add both protein and a textural pop with every bite.

“For okra soup, the main thing is you have okra and tomatoes — otherwise do what you want,” Ganaway told me. But unlike many recipes, this one uses the entire tomato. As a cook, I’ve always been flummoxed to see people discarding tomato seeds and their surrounding jelly and call it fine cooking when anyone who has taken the time to carefully taste the fruit knows that they’re actually the most flavorful parts — up to six times as rich in the compounds that contribute to umami as other parts of the fruit. Throwing the flavor away for some arbitrary aesthetic reason strikes me as absurd, and in this soup the tomato’s seeds are essential.

The tomato arrived in the American South by way of Mexico — it was native to Peru — where it was domesticated sometime in the 17th century, and it became fundamental to Lowcountry cooking. And the butter beans and corn that Ganaway stirs into the soup right at the end are also not native to the region; they came from Peru and Mexico and traveled north, where Native Americans introduced the ingredients to Gullah Geechee cooks. I’ve spent my cooking career obsessed with sourcing ingredients, but Ganaway inspired me to look much further back, to not stop at the farm or the market but to trace the actual origin of each ingredient. At least four continents, five spiritual traditions and three races were represented in this dish.

At home, when the soup was finished, I looked at the constellation of vegetables, beans and shredded meat in my bowl. Between spoonfuls, the okra seeds popped in my mouth, and I ate rice to soothe the burn of hot sauce at the back of my throat. “We can’t have the conversation about what American food is without talking about the little communities that were built up along the coast of our country because of the slave trade,” Ganaway told me. By necessity, Gullah Geechee cooking refers to our nation’s history and acknowledges even the ugliest parts — the genocide, the enslavement, the colonization — and still manages to nourish. While we might think of burgers and apple pie as our national culinary emblems, this okra soup makes me wonder if it isn’t worth reconsidering what makes a dish uniquely American.

Recipe: Lowcountry Okra Soup

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