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The Peoples' Vegetable

Burkville, Alabama’s annual Okra Festival sustains its rural community in more ways than one.

by Amanda Burleigh

The 10th annual Okra Festival will be held in Burkville, Alabama, on August 28 this year. What started as a neighborhood party thrown by two friends in Lowndes County has blossomed into an annual festival drawing thousands of people to this small town located outside Montgomery.

“Everybody in my little community grows the mighty okra, which we call ‘the peoples’ vegetable,’” says festival co-founder Barbara Evans. “It’s like us, strong, Southern, can withstand anything and keep going.”

After the success of the first festival, Evans says townspeople wanted it to continue.

“Local people cook all kinds of food, from pig ear sandwiches to gumbo. Okra is fried, steamed, stewed, boiled and used in art,” she says. But that’s not all. Festival goers will also find okra casseroles, hors d’oeuvres, pie and pickled okra. Sunny Boy King, a local bluesman, has been performing from Evans’ front porch, located on the festival grounds, since the second year. Vendors sell art, preserves and crafts, and there is even the occasional yard sale. “One year we had pony rides, but it was just too hot for the ponies,” says Evans, pictured in the center on the left with author of “Bloody Lowndes” Hasaan Jeffries and “Welcome Home” author Estizer Smith. Camels have taken the place of ponies.

There’s only one rule: Food can only be sold by citizens of Lowndes County as a way to help this low-income area of the state. “It’s a chance for people, groups and churches to make money,” Evans explains, as the festival does not charge admission. From the parking lot, attendees can see okra growing, proof that the fried, stewed or pickled version on their plate didn’t travel far.

“From neighborhood get together to full-fledged festival, the Okra Festival has just bloomed,” says Evans. “Alabama’s Black Belt stretches across the state, and in late August about everything has burnt up save cotton and okra.”

Annie Mae’s Okra Pie
1 frozen pie crust
Several thinly sliced tomatoes
Several thinly sliced bell peppers
1 cup grated cheese (Parmesan is suggested, but any cheese will work)
1 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tsp Emeril’s Essence seasoning
1 egg
1 thinly sliced onion
1 lb. okra, sliced
Milk and additional cheese are optional

Bake the frozen pie crust for 7 minutes at 375 degrees. When cool, layer in some of the tomatoes and bell peppers. Mix a cup of grated cheese with a cup of mayonnaise, 1/2 cup of sour cream and a teaspoon of Emeril’s Essence seasoning. Beat in the egg. Layer the mixture on top of the veggies, then add a layer of okra that has been sautéed with an onion and drained for just a minute. Keep layering the mixture with the okra and onions, ending with the mayo and sour cream mixture. Sprinkle with a little more cheese. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour. Serve at room temperature.

Note: If your mixture is too thick, you can add a little milk, and you might want to cover the rim of the crust with aluminum foil. Barbara Evans advises the use of “good tomatoes” in this recipe and also suggests adding shrimp, chicken or bacon.

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