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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
Given the fact that it already grows almost everywhere in the tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate regions, okra would seem misplaced in a book on lost crops. Furthermore, only in a few locations has it developed into a major resource. Although perhaps a hundred nations know this African species first hand, none has raised it to anything like the heights attained by, say, cabbage, carrot, or common bean in the western world. For this there seems good reason: People generally don’t take to okra. In a 1974 survey made by the United States Department of Agriculture, for instance, adults named okra as one of the three vegetables they liked least, and children rated it with the four they liked second-least. 1
The sticky, mucilaginous juice inside the pods is the main objection. That slime blinds everyone to the plant’s greater potential. Of course, there are places where okra is regarded with something akin to reverence. Neither New Orleans nor West Africa, for instance, would be the same without it. But, given the crop’s overall status, most observers would logically conclude that okra’s natural limit as a global resource was reached long ago.
Seen in even broader perspective, however, that would be a suspect conclusion. In reality okra could have a future that will make people puzzle over why earlier generations failed to seize the opportunity before their eyes. In the Botanical Kingdom it may actually be a Cinderella, though still living on the hearth of neglect amid the ashes of scorn. Following are some reasons why it could soon rise and take a place alongside the royalty of crop plants.
This plant is perfect as a villager’s crop. For one thing it is easy to grow, robust, and little affected by pests and diseases. Also, it adapts to difficult conditions and can grow well where other food plants prove unreliable. For another, it provides good yields and possibly more products than any other vegetable. For a third, it is full of nutrients. And, economically speaking, its products are within almost everyone’s reach.
At least in the United States it is seldom cooked as a separate vegetable for its own sake, although there are exceptions—an okra and tomato dish in Texas, for instance, or Charleston’s Limping Susan, a blend of rice and okra.