Monday, September 18, 2006

Lunch ladies and fried okra


School lunches are a hot topic du jour as the school year has recently begun. Everyone from The New York Times to the New Yorker seems to be weighing in. Most of these articles focus on changing the traditional school lunch from its government sanctioned mediocrity into something that has nutritional value. But of course, lots of kids have a well-formed junk-food palate, and are averse to foods that aren’t deep fried or loaded with sugar. One student in Burkhard Bilger’s New Yorker profile of crusading Berkeley, CA school chef Ann Cooper, laments Cooper’s new vegetable-heavy menus: “…She missed all the meat from last year. She picked at her pink coleslaw. ‘I’m moving to Texas,’ she said.” While it is not explained if she’s really moving to Texas or just wants to move to Texas because she believes there will be more meat served with her school lunch, the comment made me laugh. I don’t remember Texan lunch ladies serving up huge portions of meat, but there sure was a lot of fried okra.

In hindsight, I reckon I was fortunate because my mother made my lunch for me everyday and I rarely ate the stuff served by the cafeteria ladies. But as a kid, when everyone around you has a tray and you’re schlepping a Pigs in Space lunch kit filled with a peanut-butter and banana sandwich on homemade, whole-wheat bread; a piece of fruit; a bag of what she called “miscellaneous” but what I’d now call trail mix—raisins, nuts, and dried coconut; and a thermos filled with milk—well, you’re just not cool. Even the other kids who did bring their lunches got to eat processed meat with American cheese on Mrs. Baird’s white bread, a bag of Fritos, and Zingers. I hated having health-food nuts for parents, it just made me appear weird to me fellow young Texans.

My mom at the time was a special education teacher at the school I attended. One crisp late November, she had a horrible case of the flu and had to stay home for a few days. But every morning, she still managed to drag herself out of bed and make me a lunch. Talk about love! But, of course, I was a brat who didn’t know any better. So when lunchtime rolled around, I left my lunch kit at my desk and decided I’d try the line. What an experience! They served me a hamburger, fried okra, tater tots, chocolate pudding and chocolate milk. And even though I didn’t have any money, I wasn’t worried—I had it covered. When I got to the cashier, I just told her to charge my lunch to my mother’s account. Never mind if she actually had an "account" or not. But the cashier said OK, and I finally got to eat what all the other kids were eating, on a tray no less. I was in heaven. The next couple of days, I repeated my actions. One day was pizza, fried okra, tater tots and vanilla pudding. Another day was fried meat with gravy, fried okra, corn and banana pudding. All this washed down with glorious chocolate milk (I was served carob milk at home so this was a marked improvement in the taste department). And I charged it all to my mother’s account.

Aside from my sneaky-snake seven-year-old self, do you notice a trend? That’s right. Fried okra. Every day the lunch ladies in Texas served it, and, well, it’s the one thing I wouldn’t eat. Okra was gummy and gross and I was on a health-food vacation. But it’s the end of summer, and and the markets are filled with okra. Seeing all the stories about school lunches urged me to revisit this Texan tray-lunch staple. I found a recipe that was baked with bacon instead of deep fried, and since anything with bacon has to be good, I decided to give it a try. And it was indeed tasty. I still think okra is a touch slimy, but the crunch of the bacon and cornmeal provides a good counterbalance.

And yes, if you’re wondering, I did get busted. When my mother returned to school, the principal told her what I’d been up to while she was away. And my furious mother made me repay her the $2.10 for the 3 lunches and another 50 cents for some bake-sale brownies and cookies I’d also charged to my mom’s account. But if my bad behavior urged me to revisit fried okra 25-years later, then it was all worthwhile.

Did you buy or bring your lunch as a kid? What do you think about okra?

OKRA BAKED WITH BACON (From the Fort Worth Star Telegram)
Ingredients:
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
5 to 7 drops Tabasco sauce or
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 pounds fresh okra, washed, dried and cut into 1/2-inch rounds
6 strips uncooked bacon, diced

Method:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
In a large resealable plastic bag, combine cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper and Tabasco sauce or cayenne; close and shake to combine. Add the okra pieces and shake to coat the okra in the cornmeal mixture.

Arrange okra in prepared baking dish in two layers. Top with bacon. Bake for 20 minutes; stir lightly to make sure all pieces come into contact with the bacon. Bake 5 to 10 minutes more, until the bacon is browned and the okra is crispy on the outside.

Related Stories Widget by LinkWithin

27 comments:

elle said...

ha-ha-i'm from atlanta and i don't remember okra ever being on the menu. we bought our lunch and it was not very good. so now i'm the health food crazed mom and my kids laugh at me and beg for eggos even though i think they appreciate the good food alternatives.as for okra we usually had it in crab gumbo in galveston but it was slimey. i've never had fried okra but i love anything fried.

lucette said...

We didn't have a cafeteria in grade school, so I took my lunch every day, which I was OK with. However, we bought our milk at school, and we could choose chocolate or white--I always told my mother I picked white, but of course I had chocolate milk every day, which I wasn't allowed at home.

anythingwithcheese said...

I too was one of those kids who had to bring a sack lunch everyday. I was insanely jealous of all the other kids who got to sample the bad-for-you food on the lunch line. So much so, that in kindergarten, I took to stealing quarters from other kids so that I could at least buy dessert. Oh wow, if that didn't result in the biggest spanking of my life!!

About okra, I absolutely love it. Everytime I eat at Luby's Cafeteria, I get the same thing. Fried fish, mac-n-cheese and fried okra. Yum!

melissa mcgee said...

mmmm okra. i love okra, but i don't remember ever having it in a school lunch - i would have loved that! love that you had a pigs in space (say it: piiiiiiiigggs innnn spaaaaaaaaaaaaace!) lunchbox! i had a bionic woman lunch box. i love fried okra, but my favorite is pickled okra! i can eat my weight in that stuff.

ps - thank you for your correct spelling of "palate". ;)

christine (myplateoryours) said...

Okra, blech! The only vegetable I don't love. My grandmother used to make it and I distinctly remember making my mind up to hate it before I ever tried it based entirely on the word "mucilaginous" which always occured in the same breath as "okra.". To a kid it was a dsigusting sounding word on its own, and way too close to "mucus." Eeeewww, gross!

Never had it in school, either, but that was Long Island. Don't remember it being a big New York thing.

suburban housefrau said...

The only place I ever got fried okra was at Luby's or Piccadilly - and I ALWAYS picked it as my side item.

At school, I always brought my lunch. I don't remember the contents until I got to junior high and made my own. However, my mother would buy the awful lunchmeat selections that included turkey, pickled loaf, and bologna. We always fought over the 4 slices of turkey and HATED the loaf and bologna. ugh. When I made my own lunches it was always a juice pack, sandwich, chips, and a Little Debbie - my favorites were Star Crunch and Swiss rolls. I shudder to think about those unhealthy lunches - and made at home no less. Probably better than the fried burrito with fries I'd get at school, but still.

Luisa said...

I would have loved it if someone had made me lunch - my single father was too busy, so I ate cafeteria school, which in suburban Boston in the early 80's, was pretty nasty. I still have icky memories of gluey tuna salad in sweet-ish hotdog buns and awful little celery crunchies in the middle... When I was in school in Germany, cafeteria lunch was pretty great: wholesome, nutritious hot meals with balanced food groups and plenty of fruits and vegetables. I'd happily eat that stuff for lunch today, still!

As for okra, I only was introduced to it when I moved to NYC. I quite like it - stewed with onions and fresh tomatoes. I've never tried it fried - it sounds nice, with a crispy balance to the gooey insides.

Luisa said...

Hee - I meant to write "I ate cafeteria FOOD"

Homesick Texan said...

Elle-stay the health-crazed mom--your kids will appreciate it someday.

Lucette--I can identify with your sneakiness.

Anything with Cheese--I love Luby's! Boy, I wish they had one here in NY.

Melissa--How cool that you had a Bionic Woman lunch kit! Do you still have it? My mom pickles okra (from my grandparents' farm) along with a bunch of other things, but I've never tried them. Perhaps it's time.

Christine-- "mucilaginous" is a disgusting adjective and shouldn't be attached to anything
edible. That said, I have discovered that fried okra is surprisingly mucilaginous free.

S. Housfrau--do they still make pickle loaf? Blech!

Luisa--What a poignant memory. There's a new French book called Cuisines that revisits and reinterprets classic French school menus that sounds similar to your German experience; the dishes sound very healthy and appetizing. Not all school food is terrible, just here, I reckon.

melissa mcgee said...

i have to tell you, i love the okra photo on the top of this post because that one slice of okra is missing it's seed. gorgeous!

Pepper said...

What a great looking recipe. I was going to do something Indian with my okra but now I am very tempted to try it your way.

Anonymous said...

The Delta Cafe in Portland, Oregon soothes the soul of southerners. Fried okra, hush puppies, fried pork chops! Yes a heart attack, and the smell of grease stays in your hair for days. My friend and I are discussing the creation of a cafeteria in this lovely city. Too bad they are restricted to prisons and elemantary schools. By the way, mom stopped making bread so much and gave me peanut butter and honey on Roman Meal bread. On the once a week trip through the lunch line, I would opt for extra pizza instead of any side. Chocolate milk was a must.
Jacob

Texan in DC said...

Now I'm craving Okra AND Luby's! At thanksgiving my grandmother has taken to making a large serving of fried okra because, when we were all kids, we grandchildren wouldn't eat any other vegetables BUT fried okra. She made it just for us! Now it's a tradition that we won't easily give up. We still fight over it to this day.
I even bought okra seeds last spring and planted them in a pot on my balcony just to get fresh okra. I didn't get much, but the little I got was worth it! :)

Lindsay said...

My mom used to make my lunch, health food also. No white bread ever.

But the days when she didn't have time, I was so excited by the lunch line and our cafeteria also regularly served fried okra. It was my favorite both at school and at Luby's.

Homesick Houstonian said...

I LOVE fried okra! I was so disappointed when I went to popeye's here and they didn't have fried okra on the menu.

What I really miss is pickled okra! I can't seem to find it here (yet).

njg55@aol.com said...

Speaking of okra. My family is from Texas and my Mom boiled the okra whole, mashed it flat, and then fried it in bacon grease. It was light and crispy and if you just sliced it and cooked it my Dad would have a fit. He called it "green" that way.

It probably was heart attack on a plate but that's just the way it was done.

Laurie said...

Wow. I don't remember okra being served at school, although I lived deep in Cajun country. We did however have shrimp. Shrimp stew, shrimp gumbo (maybe with okra?), shrimp jambalaya! However I live in Honduras now. The other day I had a craving for okra, and I found some at a local supermarket. I stewed it with tomatoes and onions. However I want to try this recipe. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Fried okra is an all time fave of mine!! My grandmother can make it the best - no special recipe, just the cornmeal! Theres nothing like a grandmothers cooking!! (Especially one from Texas!) Your recipe sounds amazing! My fiancee are going to a bbq and have to bring a sidedish - this may be the one!! As far as school lunches, there were about two meals that were worth eating and no fried okra :( That would have made them worthwile!!

Anonymous said...

My Arkansas Grandma made the BEST fried okry there ever was! No one can make like she did.
When I was kid / teenager, I got to spend some time each summer or fall down in Ar-kan-saw with Grandma and Grandpa Lucy. I helped snap beans, and pullup peanuts, prep cucumbers for pickling, pick grapes and make jelly. I loved those tasks ! I was horrified that okra was slimey and nasty to touch but, oh how I loved it fried ! I do miss the southern cooking - even when it was prepared with lard that came out of huge buckets. Ahhhh, memories!

Suzanne said...

i used to spend weekends with my great grandmother in east texas. she was a true pioneer and worked her five acres of sandy loam and was mostly self-sufficient. my job was to pull potatoes, pick corn, berries, peaches, pears and okra. her fried okra is still my favorite thing on earth. she'd fry it up in a big cast iron skillet in bacon grease. some of the pieces would get almost burned - those were the best. pure texas heaven.

Suzanne said...

to add to previous, i have an unreasonable fear of frying, perhaps it was getting too close to my great grandmother's skillet. this may be my road to okra heaven so once again, i thank you. will try this next weekend and let you know.

Guy Paul said...

njg55's mashed and fried okra sounds interesting. Sorta like vegetable scrapple? And I agree that Luby's does make great fried okra. There's one about 3 blocks from where I live .... very tempting.

Sarah said...

First of all, I found your blog (much) earlier today and have been reading ever since - I love your photos!

I, too, was denied the privilege of buying my lunch at school. Although my mom wasn't exactly a health food nut, she was adamant on the bread issue. To this day I still crave Wonderbread due to the excess of chunky, grainy slices I ate my jelly sandwiches on every day for six years. (That's right - I was allergic to peanut butter, so my mother packed me jelly sandwiches. She wasn't exactly a culinary mastermind, bless her heart.) She did let me buy lunch every Friday - Pizza Day. :]

Anonymous said...

Okra!! Fried, stewed, pickled I love it!

Growing up we always had fried okra either at my grandmother's, great-grandmother's or at home.

It was always rockin. But when we went to the cafeteria it wasn't quite the same. I figured they didn't know how to make it. Cause everywhere I went it tasted the same.
Wasn't till I was an adult that I realized it tasted the same everywhere because my mom cooked it everywhere, home, grandma's and great-grandma's. Furthermore, my mother hated, HATED okra, but she made it for the rest of us. Now that's love.

Anonymous said...

Fried okra is my favorite vegetable. When I lived in the north no one ever heard of it and I had to go without for years. Now I buy it frozen and sliced, ready for my okra binging whenever I want. I will not partake of the slimy stuff stewed or pickled, however. Fried, it is a good substitute for popcorn as a snack!

Anonymous said...

Fried okra is one of the greatest inventions in food. Loved your story. I grew up in Tennessee and it was always a treat when Mama would make it. It was my brother, Bob's favorite thing. He died today, after a 7 month fight with leukemia. I bet they are serving FRIED OKRA in Heaven for dinner tonight. He'll be eating with my parents there. My niece said that she bet they will be passing a box of Cheez-Its, too.

Texan in Deutschland said...

I realize this is a very old post, but I just came across it. Okra caught my eye! Growing up in small-town Texas, we had the most awesome lunch ladies (think grandmothers in the sixities). They actually cooked most of what we ate from scratch. We had meat loaf, fried chicken, of course fried okra, homemade rolls (best ever) and even homemade corndogs (also best ever). Every Friday was sandwich day, a sandwich of choice (peanut butter and honey, tuna, or pimento cheese) and homemade vegetable soup. I have fond memories of these lunches. But okra has always been a favorite, properly fried, with cornmeal and flour stirred in, pour into a hot skillet, then turn down a bit, put the lid on and let it start to brown; stir a few times to get all evenly browned and done. Not slimy, not firm, just melt in your mouth goodness. Would not eat boiled okra for years, but have come to appreciate it on occasion. I might have to go cook some okra now.

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated to avoid spam. And if you don't have a blog, please leave your name as it makes it friendlier that way!