Voice of the people: Marion Whitley




'Uptown' okra 


When Birney Imes invited me, few years back, to send pieces linking my southern heritage, Caledonia/Columbus, and my present life in New York City, I was both pleased and challenged to comply. "Up South" it was to be. So here's this .... 


Recently, a friend from Caledonia (and First Grade) sent me her recipe for vegetable soup. I can't keep a well-stocked cupboard in a small New York apartment, (nor can I go out to the smoke house for a Mason jar of canned tomatoes as my mother would have done.) But scanning the ingredients list, I felt reasonably sure that, with the help of my local supermarket, I could pull together the essentials and have a go at it. If I alter the amounts a tad here and there, use three onions and two potatoes instead of the other way around, as per my friend's directions, So what! And isn't there something about a soup recipe that allows you, depending on what's on your shelf, to do some math? Like: add an onion, subtract a carrot, multiply or cut-in-half the salt and pepper? My math skills are no better than those for cooking, but I've been known to use them when making soup. In truth, nobody has ever asked me for a recipe, (but neither have I discarded a spoonful.) 


But there's one essential soup ingredient you don't ignore or play around with. What's that? (If you don't know, you weren't raised right.) Everybody I know knows it's okra. Yep, there it is, 6th ingredient from the top of my friend's handwritten recipe: 1 quart of diced okra. "Aye, there's the rub". 


In recent years, I've noticed a scarcity of okra in the frozen vegetable case; just assumed it was 'seasonal'. Sometimes I've asked a stock guy to climb up and check behind the spinach to ferret out the last, somewhat lopsided box of okra in stock. But I let that slippery slope slide .... till .... the stock guys started avoiding me and .... till... with the new Caledonia recipe in hand, I had to grab Jose by the sleeve to have a look behind the spinach. 


"You right, M'am, no okra, but I order for you. Four boxes? No problema. They come for you manana, one week." 


I gave it a week and a day. Jose was up on the ladder when he saw me turn into the frozen vegetables aisle. He scurried down and went into a decidedly closed conversation with Jason, busy below stocking frozen pizza. I waited, then politely interrupted, "Oh, Hi, Did my okra come in?" 


Forced to face me, he said, "So sorry M'am, I tried for you four okras, but Bird's Eye guy say, 'No more. Okra now discontinued.'" 


As my face fell, Jason perked up! "What you mean, 'Okra Discontinued'? Where you live at, M'am?" 


"Around the corner." 


"Yeah, but that's your problem, see? You got to go 'uptown' to get your okra. How much you want? I'll bring you some!" 


You don't kiss the stock guy for offering an okra source, but hey, for that spontaneous, friendly, neighborly offer to bring me some, from 'uptown'! That's a whole other thing! 


No, I didn't kiss him, nor did I impose on him to bring me okra. He accepted my sincere thanks with a handshake as I assured him, and it's true, I have a lunch date next week with a friend in The Bronx. I'll call and ask her to bring me four boxes from her 'uptown' frozen vegetable market 


But what a guy! You need a quart of diced okra? You've got to know the right people, regardless of the Mason Dixon Divide. (And they're here! There! Thank you Jisu) 


Marion Whitley 


New York City



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