Heirloom Okra and True Virginia Gumbo
In Notes on the State of Virginia, begun in 1781, Thomas Jefferson recorded that the gardens of his native state “yield musk melons, water melons, tomatoes, okra, pomegranates, figs, and the esculent plants of Europe.” It wasn’t until 1809, however, that Jefferson began to plant okra on an annual basis at Monticello.
Jefferson experimented with this African native. He generally planted okra in late March or early April. In 1817, for instance, he noted its planting in Monticello’s Vegetable Garden on April 2 and its arrival at table on July 28, over sixteen weeks later. In 1813, Jefferson edged his “square,” or plot of tomatoes with okra – a rather unusual combination of plant textures.
When Southern Living’s “Grumpy Gardener” Steve Bender visited Monticello, he was delighted to see Cow’s Horn Okra, an heirloom variety with distinctive curved fruits, still growing in the Vegetable Garden today. Bender says okra is the “quintessential southern vegetable” and that Jefferson popularized many of today’s culinary southern staples.
A member of the mallow family, okra is both tasty and beautiful with large, handsome yellow flowers. The young fruiting pods were often combined with tomatoes for soups in Jefferson family recipes. Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, left a recipe for okra soup, in effect “gumbo,” marking the early Africanization of the cooking of Virginia gentry. Gumbo works as a compelling metaphor for Monticello’s garden: a rich blend of American native vegetables grown by American Indians like lima beans and cymlins mixed with South and Central American discoveries adapted by both northern (potatoes) and southern (tomatoes) Europeans, and tied together by an African plant, okra.
The gumbo recipe below was attributed to Martha Randolph in her daughter Virginia Randolph Trist’s manuscript and edited for modern use by Damon Lee Fowler in Dining at Monticello. The recipe is derived from classic African “long-pot” cooking and served with rice as per West African tradition. For authenticity, try this soup with fresh okra, truly vine-ripened tomatoes, and an all-natural, grain-fed chicken weighing no more than three pounds.
4 quarts water
1 pound young okra (each 2 to 3 inches long), trimmed and slice
1 large white onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups fresh lima beans, or 1 package (10 ounces) frozen lima beans, thawed
whole black pepper in a pepper mill
1 chicken (3 ½ pounds), cut up as for frying, setting aside the back and neck for another use
4 ounces salt pork, sliced about ¼ inch think and blanched
2 large sprigs each fresh parsley and thyme, tied together in a bundle with kitchen twine
1 pound (about 3 medium) pattypan or yellow summer squash, trimmed and diced
5 medium tomatoes, blanced, peeled, cored, and diced (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 rounded tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups cooked white rice
- Bring the water to a simmer in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Stir in the okra and onion and return to a simmer. Reduce the heat as low as possible and cook at a bare simmer for 1 hour. Add the lima beans and simmer for another 30 minutes, or until the beans are just tender.
- Season liberally with salt and a few grindings of pepper and add the chicken, salt pork, herb bundle, and squash. Raise the heat briefly to return to a simmer, lower it once more, and cook at a bare simmer until the chicken is fully cooked, about 1 hour. Add the tomatoes and continue simmering for another hour. Remove from the heat and discard the salt pork and herb bundle. The soup can be made ahead and cooled, covered, and refrigerated. When chilled (about 6 hours or overnight), remove and discard any fat that surfaces. Otherwise, let it cool until all the fat settles to the top, and skim it off.
- When ready to serve the soup, return it to a simmer over medium heat, Knead together the butter and flour in a small bowl and stir it into the soup, simmering until lightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Serve it in warmed bowls with a whole piece of chicken in each bowl and about ¼ cup of white rice spooned into the center of each serving.