Geri Augusto – the importance of okra to enslaved people

Well we usually think about enslaved
people in connection with plantations and that is the work that they were
doing from sun up to sun down. But there’s another important piece of the history of enslaved people and plants particularly in the ‘New World’, in the
Americas, to which they were taken and that is that they had to do a lot of
their own food production in many cases. Theoretically the plantation owner was
supplying what the workforce needed to eat. But in reality the historical records show that that was a very paltry and scarce diet and enslaved people took
the initiative, I guess we could call it, to create small plots and provision
grounds – they go by different names. In North America they were called plots and patches, in the Caribbean they got the name provision grounds. And so in other countries in North and South America they have different names but what it would be is a small, very small patch of ground either beside the slave hut or cabin, or on marginal land so swamp land, on a hillside, at the edge of the forest, a piece of land that the plantation owner didn’t need for cotton or sugar or tobacco. And they would raise on the few days – they didn’t have a day off really but so we could say on Sunday sometimes they’d have a day off, or on quote ‘holidays’, in the evening they were too tired. And on these small plots they would raise vegetables, medicinal plants and even flowers. So in a way you could think of it as part of resistance, survival is always resistance if you can
make it. So they were supplementing their diet, but also it was a small small patch in which they could be human. Okra is one of about 20, some scholars say 25 plants, that are originally indigenous to Africa but that made it over the crossing over
the Atlantic during the slave trade. A very few were actually deliberately brought as seeds clandestinely, we think, by the enslaved but most of these were either crops that the plantation owners knew were being cultivated and eaten on the coasts of Africa from which they brought the people, and so they brought them over as provisions in the ship for the voyage of the Middle Passage. And other times they actually sent for cuttings and pods so that they could replant on the plantation, or give the enslaved people to replant on the plantation, these foods that would have been familiar to the enslaved. One of those was okra. So okra is often planted in the provision grounds or plots or hut patches, whether in the southern United States in the Caribbean or in South America. It was ubiquitous. It had plenty of uses, teas were made from the flowers and the leaves, but it was mainly that pod, the pod itself. In Africa, all up and down the west coast, so way up from Nigeria on down to what is today Angola, it was part of very popular dishes that people would have had at home combined with a sauce made from peanut butter, we would call it peanut butter, but crushed peanuts or a sauce made from palm oil. When they got to the Americas it was important, I think, for them to recreate at least some dishes that were familiar to them and that were nourishing and a lot of these dishes were based around the okra pod. So the most famous of the dishes is called calalou, you’ll find calalou from New Orleans, calalou from Jamaica, callalou from Angola on the other side and calalou from Brazil, sometimes called caruru, the R gets changed to an L. The basis of calalou is always okra plus some other dark green and then it would vary what else was in the sauce. Often there was hot pepper, there could be fish, a bit of fish a bit of bean, in Brazil a bit of dried meat, dried, you know, hunting type meat. And so you’ll find calalou everywhere. The other name for okra is quingombo, which is from a kiKongo word for that plant ki-ngombo so you get the derivative gumbo. In New Orleans you may have heard of the dish gumbo. And again it’s a one-pot dish with a savoury stew, that features okra and some kind of dark leafy green. So nutritious and tasty, and it kept us alive.


  1. Great information and the way she presents it with such grounded knowledge is beautiful. I love it.

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