Walmart’s Okra Problem

Bizarre but delicious, okra was a regular menu item as I was growing up. Sliced thin and rolled in salted cornmeal, okra was fried to a crisp golden brown. Mind you, this was not the half-cooked version found in most restaurants today. Rather, the crunchy umami of well-done okra was an essential part of the flavor.

Moving toward old age and looking toward easier and healthier methods of preparing this dish, I discovered that whole pods of okra could reach a similarly scrumptious state when fried minus the laborious slicing and added cornmeal. A little olive oil and an iron skillet render the pods golden brown after only a half hour or so.

A critical factor in this method is the size of the pod. Okra becomes increasingly tough as it grows larger, something that sends us home growers out to the okra patch on a daily basis. Those little devils can grow an inch almost overnight. Once an okra pod zooms much past four inches, you might as well throw it away.

The exception to this winnowing would be if you plan to use okra in gumbo or other stewed preparations, which cooks long enough to overcome the pending toughness while adding its mucilaginous goodness to the pot. Perhaps even frying larger pods would be acceptable IF the pods were sliced.

Frying whole pods being my current modus operandi, I have searched the local markets during the winter months when this tropical native does not grow in my tiny Ozark garden. Walmart offers a small space for fresh okra in its produce section. Alas, 99% of the time, the okra displayed there is disgusting. Packaged in plastic bags, the okra rapidly sweats itself into a moldy, mushy funk. Or some hopeful produce worker places the packages in the path of the regular misting, guaranteeing that the pods quickly deteriorate into the consistency of lumpy puke.

Look closely at the discolored parts of these deteriorating pods, presented here for the viewers delectation.

An alternative packaging method involves clear plastic cartons with ventilation slots. Here the okra has a better chance of lasting until a customer can purchase and, if she hurries, cook and eat it. If the package has been on the shelf more than a few days, the tell-tale signs of black mold and rot seem to be invisible to the produce manager, and the packages will remain until the entire mass has disgustingly disintegrated into a homogenous mass of putrefying vegetation.

Whole Foods is the only other local market found to offer fresh okra. Viewers will note the appetizing black decay on these pods.

The other problem plaguing Walmart’s fresh okra is size. In Walmart’s $4.23 12 oz. package of fresh okra, which contains maybe 20 pods, one finds only six or seven under four inches. This problem can be traced to the source. Nicaraguan and other contract Central American farmers are apparently unaware of the tenderness issue, understandable since a) okra is native to West Africa, Ethiopia, Southeast Asia, and/or South Asia; and b) farmers and their managers wish to gain the largest product for their efforts. The low sales numbers and rate of spoilage should alert Walmart admins of a problem, but they lumber ever onward, oblivious.

Fortunately, a frozen product is usually available at most stores. But don’t be misled by the pre-cut and/or the pre-breaded okra. It doesn’t cook up crisp, but rather transforms into a gummy wad of flavorless gunk. Defying the imagination, Walmart’s ‘Great Value’ breaded okra is sold in a steamable bag…

Only the frozen whole okra pods are useful, but again there is a size problem. The purchaser is indeed fortunate if even half the pods are four inches or less.

Sadly, if a person shops for frozen okra at any of the Walmart stores, as I did a few days ago, that person would be disappointed to discover that there may be no frozen okra pods in stock, thereby requiring that the hopeful buyer travel to a different Walmart. I find it consistently at the Neighborhood Walmart at 660 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but never at the Walmart Supercenter at 2875 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. [Okay, ‘never’ is a big word and must confess that I haven’t checked for it every day as my grocery shopping trips are weekly. Still…]

This attractively green batch of fresh okra contains waaaay too many oversized pods.

I plan to grow at least 12 okra plants in my raised beds this year, with an eye to freezing some of my own for cold weather use rather than being constantly at the mercy of commercial growers and retailers’ utter lack of quality control. The real solution to the okra problem is to require growers and merchants to actually EAT some properly-sized and prepared okra. Otherwise this is a hopeless situation for okra lovers everywhere.

Properly fried, sliced okra will not retain a bright green color and neither will the pods, changing instead to a dull olive drab.

5 thoughts on “Walmart’s Okra Problem

  1. As a Yankee raised on meat & potatoes, okra was a joy discovered. Fresh, small pods could be eaten raw, very tasty. When doing a gumbo, in winter, I use cut frozen raw, barely passable-

  2. The joy of Okra. Part of my Arkansas upbringing as well but we would fry it up whether it was tough or not. Grandma would rarely let it go to waste adding it to her veg soup as well. There is just something creepy about buying it from a store where it has been shipped in. Looking forward to August when it is local. Great idea about freezing your own.

  3. Yes, cornmeal and salt ONLY. No flour! I never thought of frying the whole pod, but that’s worth a try. Will olive oil give you the heat needed for crunchiness? I use Crisco, which I’d think would need only 15 minues or so of frying, not the 30 minutes recommended for the olive oil. Denele, you’ve made me hongry, Woman!!! I do miss gardening, but I’m too old to cut the okra and mustard greens these days. Ruskin Teeter

    1. I use olive oil because of health. Crisco is not healthy. You can get olive oil really hot, and 30 minutes is because it is frozen. I also love greens, mustard and turnip greens combined. You can usually find them at a supermarket, sold per bunch. A bunch of each gives me enough that I can freeze the leftovers in a muffin pan (then dumped into a freezer bag). Those little muffin-sized chunks of greens are easy to microwave. Yum!

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