Three quintessential ingredients of a lowcountry summer table are tomatoes, okra, and local creek shrimp. And nowhere is the eclectic blending that defines our cooking better illustrated than when those three are combined in the pot.
Though they've found their way into gardens and pots the world over, tomatoes are believed to have originated in Central America. Okra, while now common in the Atlantic Rim's African Diaspora and in Southeast Asia, has its roots in Africa. And although dozens of varieties of shrimp are found in every part of the globe, our local brown creek shrimp have a unique sweetness thanks to the grassy marshes where they've thrived for thousands of years.
When all three come together in the same pan, however, their sum speaks solely of the coastal plains of the South and subtropical Caribbean, where the foodways of Africa, Native America, and Europe comingled to form a new collection of cuisines often referred to as "Creole."
The word literally means blended, and originally described people of blended race. And, strictly speaking, "Creole" as applied to cooking is a reference to those people, but it becomes peculiarly appropriate when we consider that the cuisines themselves are blended. No longer African, Native, and European, they have become something lovely on their own, defying the brutal realities of the invasion, exploitation, and enslavement that brought their components into this part of the world.
If only our blending as a people could be as harmonious as a panful of tomatoes, okra, and shrimp. But cooking is simple: things either work or they don't. Finding harmony in the pot is a logical process that involves a basic understanding of the individual ingredients, techniques, and chemistry of how technique affects each ingredient and of how they react with one another.
People, on the other hand, are complicated. It's not always as easy for us to look past surfaces and cultural biases, nor the fear that those things have deeply instilled in us. But such prejudices and fears are learned behavior, and can be un-learned.
And one place to start that un-learning is at the table. Our most obvious common ground is food. Whether we call it Creole or not, we all eat the same blended cuisines. If we can find a way to embrace that, then we're that much closer to embracing one another.
This isn't an attempt to turn Southern cooking, as some have tried to do, into a hotbed of racial politics: Just the opposite. This food is ours. It belongs to all of us.
And, like it or not, we belong to each other.
If that makes some uncomfortable, I'm sorry. But the reality that, after more than four centuries of living together, we have embraced our shared cuisine without fully embracing one another ought to make us uncomfortable.
Most of us have been raised on the Judeo-Christian Summary of the Law: Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. When Jesus quoted that summary in answer to the question of which of the laws were the most important, he was not spouting a religious platitude. He was simply stating a basic tenet without which no civilization can stand.
And we've seen the veracity of it again and again as civilizations crumble under the weight of social division and fear-born hatred.
But the reality is that most of us don't really like ourselves, never mind love. And what we end up doing is actually loving our neighbors exactly as we love ourselves—which is not so much.
So. Here's a slightly different take on that basic tenet of civilized behavior which might make embracing it a little easier: Love your neighbor as you love the food you share with them. Once we've done that, we just might find that we can also love ourselves as we love our neighbors.
Shrimp with Tomatoes and Okra
This is really that old classic, shrimp creole with whole pods of okra added to it, giving it all the elements of a good gumbo but without the long, sweltering simmer, so the flavors stay fresh and immediate. In New Orleans, shrimp creole usually includes thyme and sometimes bay leaves, and you should add them if that suits you.
So much of the best of summertime cooking involves fresh tomatoes. Canned ones can be substituted, but they won't have the sweet flavor and delicate texture of fresh ones and that's all there is to it. The process of blanching, peeling, and seeding them is a little time consuming to be sure, but it's well worth it and can be done a couple of hours or even a day or two ahead of time.
2 pounds (about 3 large or 4 medium) ripe tomatoes
1 pound very small, fresh okra, each pod no more than 3 inches long
2 tablespoons bacon drippings, extra-virgin olive oil, or unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled, and cut into large dice
1 large green bell pepper, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, cut into large dice
1 small fresh green or red hot chile pepper, such as a jalapeno or cayenne, stem, seeds, and membranes removed, minced, or ¼ teaspoon crushed hot pepper flakes
2 large cloves garlic, lightly crushed, peeled, and finely chopped
1½ pounds medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined
8 large or 12 small fresh basil leaves
4-6 cups hot cooked white rice
1. Bring a large teakettle filled with water to a boil. Stem the tomatoes and cut an X in the bottom of each with a sharp or serrated knife. Put them in a heatproof bowl and completely cover them with boiling water. Let them stand 1 minute, drain, and let them cool a few minutes.
2. Working over wire mesh sieve set into bowl to catch juices, core, peel, and quarter the tomatoes. Scoop out the seeds into the sieve. Roughly chop them and add them to their juices. Discard the skins and seeds. To make the tomatoes more than a day ahead, put them in heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring them to simmer over medium heat, and cook for 5-10 minutes, then cool, transfer to a storage container, cover, and refrigerate. They'll keep for up to 5 days.
3. Put the fat, onion, and both peppers in a large, lidded skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Sauté, tossing almost constantly, until the onion is translucent and softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 15-20 seconds. Add the okra and toss until it's bright green, about 2 minutes.
4. Add the tomatoes and their juices and a liberal pinch of salt. Cook briskly, stirring often, until the okra is crisp-tender and the sauce is thickened, about 10 minutes. Add the shrimp, and cook, turning them several times, until they're pink, curled, and just cooked through, about 3-5 minutes depending on the size. Remove it from the heat. Cut or tear the basil into very small bits and stir it into the pan. Taste and adjust the salt, adding more as needed, then serve over rice.