For as long as I can remember, I can hear the soulful voice of Mr. Okra as he drives around his weather-beaten truck humbly gracing the streets of uptown New Orleans as he shouts out a cry to buy his farm fresh produce. Last Saturday morning my two boys had the privilege, of having a joyful encounter with him. Mr. Okra truly is not found by accident, the locals have his beat, but times may vary. On our trips to New Orleans, my sons, Spencer and Kemp, customarily walk down with my best friend’s husband for a traditional morning visit to the neighborhood pâtisserie. On this particular morning the family dog, a clumber spaniel, came along as well and everyone on the return trip had a smile on their face, even droopy-eyed Otto. Spencer ran over when he saw me and said, “Mom we saw Mr. Okra and he was shouting out – come get ya’ ‘Oohkra,’ come get ya’ ‘blow berries [blueberries,] come get ya’ bananas!” The singing in my son’s voice replicating his newfound friend made my New Orleans resonate with me, more so than it has since Hurricane Katrina did my city harm. Now everything will seem to taste better for Kemp and Spencer when it comes off a cart or a pickup truck like Mr. Okra’s.
That same sentiment of raw and pure ingredients held true for me this weekend on my trip to the deep of the Delta for the Hot Tamale Festival. Working with chefs dating back 27 years ago, I changed my way of thinking regarding produce, unlike my mother who taught me that Sara Lee’s frozen creamed spinach was a delicious alternative to homegrown leafy greens. I have come to understand the value of the small, single farmer and the hardworking family. Saturday morning in Greenville, Mississippi, boisterous voices carry across Washington Avenue from the colorful homemade booths lining the three-block stretch with proud men and women shouting out to each passersby, “Come try our winning tamale!” No one will reveal the secret to their tamale success ranging from the spiciest to the traditional or the one-of-a-kind. However, all the tamales I devoured were ‘deelish’ and nothing if not a pure taste of the Delta. I enjoyed six of the seafood beauties wrapped tightly and swimming in a burnt orange, aromatic sauce from Katie’s Kitchen Hot Tamale booth. It was like a Zatarain’s crab-boil between two cornhusks. Drippings of cayenne and bay leaf, such a fragrant liquid, were running down my fingers and I was licking it so quickly as to not miss a single drop. The slight numbing of my tongue did not stop me from unwrapping another. Each chant, booth after booth, was tempting, but I knew my belly would bust if I had one more.
These are soulful voices of sincerity and pride. Both Mr. Okra and the Hot Tamale mavens give those listening a comfort as generations old and new yearn for what comes natural, from our heartland.