The Whole Okra

James Beard Foundation Award Winner 2020

The Whole Okra signed by Chris Smith

Chris Smith’s first encounter with okra was of the worst kind: slimy fried okra at a greasy-spoon diner. Despite that dismal introduction, Smith developed a fascination with okra, and as he researched the plant and began to experiment with it in his own kitchen, he discovered an amazing range of delicious ways to cook and eat it, along with ingenious and surprising ways to process the plant from tip-to-tail: pods, leaves, flowers, seeds, and stalks. Smith talked okra with chefs, food historians, university researchers, farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners.

The summation of his experimentation and research comes together in The Whole Okra, a lighthearted but information-rich collection of okra history, lore, recipes, craft projects, growing advice, and more. The Whole Okra includes classic recipes such as fried okra pods as well as unexpected delights including okra seed pancakes and okra flower vodka. Some of the South’s best-known chefs shared okra recipes with Smith: Okra Soup by culinary historian Michael Twitty, Limpin’ Susan by chef BJ Dennis, Bhindi Masala by chef Meherwan Irani, and Okra Fries by chef Vivian Howard.

Okra has practical uses beyond the edible, and Smith also researched the history of okra as a fiber crop for making paper and the uses of okra mucilage (slime) as a preservative, a hydrating face mask, and a primary ingredient in herbalist Katrina Blair’s recipe for Okra Marshmallow Delight. The Whole Okra is foremost a foodie’s book, but Smith also provides practical tips and techniques for home and market gardeners. He gives directions for saving seed for replanting, for a breeding project, or for a stockpile of seed for making okra oil, okra flour, okra tempeh, and more.

Smith has grown over 75 kinds of okra, and he reveals the nuanced (and not so nuanced) differences in flavor and texture, the best-tasting varieties, and his personal favorites. Smith’s wry humor and seed-to-stem enthusiasm for his subject infuse every chapter with just the right mix of fabulous recipes and culinary tips,unique projects, and fun facts about this vagabond vegetable with enormous potential.

Press Coverage

The Practical Farmers of Iowa

There are few things better than having a good book to enjoy on a cold winter day. Along with thumbing through the seed catalogs that catch my interest at the beginning of the year, I have been reading “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration” by Chris Smith, who I found to be an engaging writer, fellow gardener, okra lover and culinary explorer.

WUNC, The State of Things

Writing off okra as a slimy pod is a great injustice, according to Chris Smith. The garden writer and seed saver is an okra aficionado who asserts that while the vegetable may have a unique texture, it is a surprisingly versatile piece of produce.

The Modern Farmer

For many, okra is synonymous with slimy, fried seedy bits of “I’m not eating that.” But writer Chris Smith sees okra as something to embrace and celebrate through history and recipes. Here’s an excerpt from his just-released book.

Deep South Magazine

Eating okra seeds is no special novelty, because everyone who has crunched into an okra pod has consumed them. However, as with so many of the fruits that we eat, the market maturity (the stage at which we like to eat it) of okra pods is quite different from their botanical maturity (when the seeds within are fully formed and capable of germinating). When considering the whole plant, or in this case the whole okra, we must learn not just what parts we can eat, but also when and how those parts are best eaten.

Gardenerd Podcast

Chris Smith is obsessed with okra, and in our latest podcast we explore his new book on the endless possibilities of this oft-scorned fruit. The Whole Okra: A Seed To Stem Celebration, recounts Smith’s endeavor to trial 72 varieties of okra in North Carolina. It is a “lighthearted but information-rich collection of okra history, lore, recipes, craft projects, growing advice, and more”.

Living Well, Asheville FM

Enjoy this one-hour Living Well where Chris, of course, shares about the many wonders of okra.

Eat Your Words, Heritage Radio Network

Cathy chats with Chris Smith, author of The Whole Okra, which won the 2020 James Beard Award in the Reference, History, and Scholarship category. This is NC-based garden writer Chris Smith’s first book and shares a rich collection of okra history, lore, recipes from celebrated chefs, growing advice, and much more.

Unpretentious Palate

A love letter to okra celebrated with celebrity chef recipes

The Urban Farm Podcast

His first introduction to okra did not go over well, but years later Chris Smith was given okra seeds as a gift and he felt responsible to do his best with them.  This prompted him to research, learn, and experiment with many varieties and recipes. He learned a lot and he shares part of his journey becoming fascinated with this often discounted vegetable. Check out the recipe for pickled okra he shared with us as well.

The Laurel of Asheville

A new book, The Whole Okra by author Chris Smith, does more than try to convince the overwhelming population of okra haters to give the slimy vegetable another try. It chronicles the years Smith spent getting to know the crop through research, agricultural trialing and copious culinary experiments with every part of the plant.

Sustainable Market Farming

This brand new book is a lot of fun, and the photos are stunning. It has more about okra than you knew you “Wanted to Know”. Oil from the seeds, eating the leaves, okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights, okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. It contains growing tips and recipes, but is not limited to the practical realm.

Forbes: “This Book Will Make You Want To Eat Okra”

The Whole Okra is a wonderful compendium on the often-misunderstood vegetable. Not only does it include recipes from well-known chefs and cookbooks authors alongside stunning photography, Smith includes chapters on how to make your own okra cosmetics (check out chapter 3), how to make your own okra seed flour and tofu (both found in chapter 8) and even how to make your own okra fiber paper (chapter 9).

Mountain Xpress: “The gospel of okra: Chris Smith’s new book urges us all to embrace the slime”

In addition to the surprising range of recipes (some are even slime-free) he highlights in The Whole Okra for the familiar okra pods, Smith spent years researching and developing an astonishing number of culinary applications for the seeds, leaves and beautiful flowers of the easy-to-grow and highly productive plant.

Podcast: Tractor Time (Eco Farming Daily)

It seems like a perfect time of year to talk about okra. And I have to say that okra is one of my favorite vegetables. I grew it back when I lived in Texas, and it is just a stunningly beautiful plant. It loves the heat. It’s drought tolerant. I loved serving it at dinner parties because people were always surprised it could be so good.

But, let’s face it. Okra is polarizing. There’s the slime, for one. At the grocery store, you find it in a can, which, no thank you.

But beyond all that, it turns out okra is a powerful vehicle for telling stories about genetic diversity, seed to stem eating and even the American slave trade. Chris weaves all that, and much more, into his book.

Saveur: “The Proper Way to Cook Okra, According to an Okra Obsessive”

While the South has always, in general, embraced okra, some regions of the country are largely unaware of it. And even in the South, most cooks don’t stray beyond a handful of common recipes. Which is a shame because okra is so versatile: You can pickle, ferment, and dehydrate it—these are all technically ways to eat okra raw. You can fryboil, bake, grill, and steam it. You can slice, mash, julienne, and dice it. You can bread, batter, marinate, and season it. You can curry, casserole, stir-fry, and stew it.

WNC Magazine

More than just a cookbook, The Whole Okra is charmingly written. Through an easy-to-digest conversation with the vegetable, Smith explores okra’s East African and Asian roots, a timeline of its arrival in the Americas, and its prominence in Southern cooking—a corollary that follows the enslaved Africans from whom the first okra recipes can be traced. Smith also gives a brief yet detailed summary of the staggering array of heirloom and hybrid varieties and ways to breed and grow the vegetable, as well as its utility as a crop even in the face of deleterious climate change.

Podcast: Away to Garden, Margaret Roach

IF YOU HAD TOLD ME I’d be reading an entire book about okra, and often laughing out loud delightedly in the process, I’d have said, “No way.” But here I’ve been lately, my nose in Chris Smith’s “The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration,” gaining an entirely new perspective on this much-maligned but resilient vegetable that Smith predicts will be important for future food security in a changing climate.

The Dirt, Georgia Organics: “Embrace the Slime”: Chris Smith’s Okra Trials

Smith’s love and obsession with okra isn’t ending with the publication of his book. Championing okra because “it needs a helping hand in this cruel world full of people who think it’s too slimy”, Smith continues to experiment with different varieties and preparations of the plant.

Local Author Chris Smith Garners Coveted James Beard Award

Three years of research, trials and early morning writing sessions have netted Chris Smith the prestigious James Beard Award for 2020 in the category of Reference, History, and Scholarship for his book The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration (2019). Smith is the executive director of a new nonprofit, The Utopian Seed Project.

Front Porch Republic: In Defense of Okra By Ethan Mannon

Chris Smith takes his subtitle—A Seed to Stem Celebration—very seriously. His book includes nutritional information about okra sprouts and okra greens, dozens of recipes for the pods, as well as instructions for milling one’s own okra-seed flour. He explains that one can also press the seeds for oil, eat the flowers in several different ways, and that it’s possible to create paper from the fibers that make up the okra stem.

The Amazing Health Benefits of Okra and More by Vine Ripe Nutrition