Okra: Friend, Foe, or Fried?

okra7Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okra Ah, okra.

Okra is one of those divisive foods like mayonnaise or Brussel sprouts. Some people love it, while others are repulsed by the mere mentioning of its name. It’s like a culinary four-letter word. As a child, I was predisposed to hate okra. Everyone always described it as “slimy.” I’m not one for being a picky eater, but “slimy” isn’t typically a selling point for me when it comes to food. I refused to try okra for years because of this commonly used description.

As an educator at HMNS, I frequently encounter children who are afraid of certain halls or objects, like the ferocious prehistoric beasts in our Hall of Paleontology or the mysterious mummies in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. When I start to ask questions about why they’re afraid, I usually discover that it’s because they’re afraid of what they don’t know. So, we learn! We start talking about why mummification was an important practice in ancient Egypt, or we learn more about the amazing anatomy of a T. rex. I mean who could be afraid of a Tyrannosaurus rex after learning that one of the scientific theories behind their tiny arms is that they used them to show affection and tickle each other? It’s a pretty great mental image. After all, knowledge is power. I’m going to argue that the same concept can be applied to okra, so let’s delve into some food science.

Okra is a member of the flowering mallow family along with cotton and hibiscus. The culinary slime-stick we fry up or throw into jambalayas comes from the edible seed pod of the plant. Now, what is the deal with that slime? I’m glad you asked!

Okra seed pods contain a substance called mucilage. Sounds tasty, right? Mucilage is made up of polar glycoproteins and exopolysaccharides, or more simply put, it consists of protein chains and sugar residue. Plants use mucilage to store food and water, thicken their membranes, and help with seed germination.

Mucilage is also found in aloe vera and cactus plants. You may have rubbed some mucilage on yourself this summer in an attempt to soothe a painful sunburn. Some carnivorous plants, like sundews, have mucilage glands along their leaves to use as a flypaper trap to capture their prey.


Image: The fibrous mucilage found inside the leaves of an aloe plant.


okra9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drosera
Image: You can see the mucilage at the end of the tentacles as this sundew catches an insect.

So, in short, this is the stuff you rub on yourself to heal a sunburn, and the substance some plants use to catch insects. Great, let’s eat it!

If you’ve ever told an okraphile that you hate okra, they most likely responded with “You didn’t cook it the right way!” And that may be true. You see, mucilage is hard when dry; however, as you heat mucilage and add moisture, the viscosity of the substance increases which releases the dreaded slime. That’s why many people advocate for quick-frying okra. (For that reason and because anything fried is delicious.) Frying exposes the okra to heat for a minimal amount of time, so the mucilage doesn’t become too viscus. This results in crunchy little okra morsels. Others embrace the goo and use it in gumbos and jambalayas. The mucilage acts as an excellent thickening agent in soups and stews. Because food science.

Now that we know a little more about our friend, mucilage, let’s serve up some okra. I’m a converted fan of fried okra. It’s simple, delicious and tends to eliminate the slime factor. I’ve included my favorite recipe below!

After you’ve fried up some okra, and you’ve worked up your appetite for okra and science, stop by Okra Charity Saloon during the month of September to support your museum! We’ll be there every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with cocktail chemistry, fossils, crafts, and science. For more information on Okra Charity Saloon and how you can support HMNS, check out Nicole’s blog from September 1st (link to Nicole’s blog here).

Fried Okra
2 pounds of fresh okra
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup buttermilk
6 cups oil for frying (Canola oil or peanut oil work best. These both have higher smoke points and mild flavors, which are perfect for frying foods. More science!)

  1. Heat oil in deep pan.
  2. Cut okra into 1/2 inch pieces.
  3. Place okra pieces in buttermilk. Let sit while you combine dry ingredients.
  4. Combine flour, cornmeal, garlic powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Stir until ingredients are combined.
  5. Remove okra from buttermilk and toss in coating until each piece is completely covered. 
  6. Fry okra in oil for approximately 5 minutes or until pieces are a golden brown. Stir to make sure each piece is evenly fried. (Remember: Don’t leave it for too long, or you’ll increase the viscosity of the mucilage!)
  7. Remove okra from oil and place on paper towels to remove excess oil.
  8. Enjoy, and stop by Okra Charity Saloon to support HMNS!

The Monster Mash, IS a Museum Smash!

BOO! Halloween PLAYMOBIL scary!!!!
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Banana Donuts ~ Half Baked Photography

When you were young, did you ever call someone into your room at night to make sure there were no monsters hiding under the bed or in the closet, only to be told “there’s no such thing as monsters?” Well, I’m here to say phooey to all those non-believers. The following is a compilation of modern and marvelous Museum Monsters! Let’s just jump right in with both feet.

Seemingly mythical creatures have always fascinated mankind, but a special few have remained and live on in legends. One of the most popular is the Loch Ness monster. Fondly known as Nessie, this creature has eluded identification and in-focus photography for years. Yet people from all walks of life claim to see a creature with a long, serpentine neck leaving ripples in its wake as it swims through the Loch Ness. Well…want to see what everyone says she looks like for yourself??? The animal described above most resembles a now extinct marine reptile you can see in the Museum’s hall of Paleontology, a plesiosaur! Plesiosaurs have elongated necks and four flipper-like appendages which helped them swim easily through the ancient seas.

ZombieWalk Asbury Park NJ
Creative Commons License photo credit: Bob Jagendorf

Now let’s play a game. What dwells underground, lying dead but not dead, needing brains to be complete, waiting for its nest victim to unknowingly pass by? You thought zombie, right? Wrong! It’s Clostridium tetani, the bacteria that causes tetanus, which is a must-have specimen for some types of research institutions. This bacteria and a handful of others can produce endospores, which are dormant, environmentally-resistant survival structures. These spores don’t need oxygen (are anaerobic) and germinate when in contact with tissues to produce a potent neurotoxin. This toxin affects the brain and many of its primary functions, and, if left untreated, eventually leads to death in part by causing paralysis of respiratory muscles.

Maggots, London Zoo, London.JPG
Creative Commons License photo credit: gruntzooki

…Speaking of feasting on flesh, did you know that maggots, fly larvae, are necrophagous (meaning they eat dead tissue?) Sounds terrible, right?  The thought of a roiling, squirming mass of wormy things devouring a rotting carcass is more than some people can handle. Actually, they are quite helpful little things, especially in treating wounds that won’t heal like diabetic ulcers. Still grossed out? Just remember, bugs are our friends! In fact, you can come by and check our bugs out at the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Giants are not something we are accustomed to in this day and age, the closest thing we have is an elephant and, while quite large by our standards, they don’t even hold a candle to Indricotherium, the largest mammal ever to walk the earth. Herbivorous, it stood over 16 feet tall and weighed more than 4 elephants. To put it into perspective, a person around 6 feet tall would just come to its KNEE. Now that’s a giant mammal I’d like to see!

Smile for the Camera
Creative Commons License photo credit: Furryscaly

Moving on to the next monster, I want you to consider this phrase: “I vant to suck your blood!” Sound familiar? Vampires are the “in” monster of the moment, but they owe their stardom to the misunderstood, hemoglobin loving vampire bat. In fact, this bat is in part responsible for some of the vampire characteristics we are all familiar with today! Look at the parallels, nocturnal creatures ‘turning into’ a bat and sneaking up on unsuspecting victims, drinking their blood to survive. Vampire bats, however, don’t usually bleed their meals dry. That’s just plain vampire folklore.

Do you remember the classic horror film “The Blob?” Well, blobs actually exist! A mucilage is a gelatinous mass of deadly bacteria and detritus accumulated into huge swaths a jelly-like goo! Sounds appetizing, I know. These have most recently been spotted off the Mediterranean coastline. But beware, this is no benign blob. Mucilages large enough can cause entire beaches to be closed because of their virally and bacterially born lethality.