Festival celebrates that misunderstood pod: okra
IRMO, S.C. (AP) — You could complete an entire study of Southern delicacies by hopscotching the food festivals that sprout across South Carolina each year — boiled peanuts in Pelion, shrimp in Beaufort, peaches in Gaffney, watermelon in Pageland.
But for crowd size, not to mention guaranteed puzzled looks from your non-Southern friends, it’s hard to beat the Okra Strut, this town’s autumn homage to the fuzzy, slimy — and, people here say, deeply misunderstood — green pod vegetable.
It started in 1973, the punch line of a local radio personality who mused on-air about a hardware shop in town, the Ancient Irmese General Store. He wondered: Who were these so-called Irmese?
Probably a short tribe of farmers who subsisted on okra, figured the DJ, Gene McKay, who died earlier this year. And that fall the festival was born, a quaint arts-and-crafts show, with plenty of okra to eat, staged in a park by a local women’s club.
By 1980, the festival had grown enough to pay for a town library for Irmo, leading to more ribbing from McKay. (The Irmese can read?)
Over three and a half decades, the Okra Strut has grown substantially in popularity, much like Irmo itself, a suburb of about 11,000 people northwest of the state capital itself. The Strut now draws an estimated 50,000 people.
“We get a lot of attention because it’s an unusual vegetable,” says Jim Twitty, the festival’s administrator. “Some people have never heard of it. Sometimes I have to explain what it is first.”
Not to mention explaining why anyone would want to eat okra. It grows in slender pods covered in light fuzz, 3 to 4 inches long. It’s not much for inner beauty, either. Slicing an okra pod open releases an oozy inner membrane.
While the ooze is an important thickening agent in stews and gumbo, the slimy quality makes some people turn away from okra, particularly in its boiled variety. (As an extremely picky eater growing up in Irmo, I counted myself among this group.)
People down South overcome this problem the best way they know how — deep frying — and there is deep-fried okra by the bushel at the Okra Strut, set this year for Sept. 28 and 29, just as Irmo begins to slough off its oppressive summer heat.
The festival is family-friendly to the point of being squeaky clean: Besides the mainstay arts and crafts, the Saturday afternoon draws include an “Okryland” for kids, pony rides and a petting zoo.
My own hazy childhood memory of the Okra Strut is of walking through large crowds, and stopping with my family to have our faces painted. (My parents’ memory is that I was terrified of Okra Man, the festival’s giant, green mascot.)
It opens with a Friday night street dance and live music. On Saturday morning there’s a 6.2-mile run across the Lake Murray Dam, and a parade down St. Andrews Road (floats, beauty queens, the whole bit), one of Irmo’s main drags.
For culinary gawkers, there are two okra-eating contests — a Friday night binge for area public safety officers, and a Saturday version for children designed to see who can plow the fastest through about two pounds of okra.
That’s fried, by the way.
“Fortunately it’s not boiled, which is what we used to require them to eat,” Twitty says. “We were losing people. They refused to eat it. Plus it sometimes makes people sick, and that’s not the best thing to happen on your main stage.”
And in a development completely unrelated to okra, organizers plan this year to try to set the world record for most participants in a game of Simon Says. They need about 1,200.
If you venture to the Strut, pick up some pods of your own to take home. Okra has a taste something like that of eggplant, although some of the longer pods can yield can unpleasant woody flavor.
A couple of suggestions: Slice up the pods, drain them on a paper towel, shake them up in a paper bag with salt and flour to coat, then fry them up. (That’s from my grandmother.) Or boil it until it’s al dente, like pasta, then drain it and toss with butter, salt and pepper. (That’s from my more health-conscious father.)
Irmo bills itself as the home of the nation’s original celebration of okra — which sort of makes you wonder if there’s some unseen epidemic of smaller okra festivals with inferiority complexes out there. And while okra’s love of warm soil makes it perfect for this part of the country, the celebration does make you wonder: Why okra?
Well, why not?
Irmo and okra: “They both had four letters,” McKay recalled in a newspaper interview in 2005. “They both seemed fictitious.”
If You Go …
Irmo Okra Strut: Irmo, S.C., 10 miles northwest of Columbia; http://www.irmookrastrut.com or 803-781-6122. Free. Street dance and okra eating contest for public safety officers, 6-11 p.m. Sept. 28; Okra Strut parade and festival, including okra eating contest for children, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 29.