When I was about 5 or 6, I would spend the summers at my Mamaw Hopper and DeDad’s house (my dad’s parents). I would spend my days following DeDad around, watching PBS, taking Mamaw’s ear off, and waiting for my uncle to get off work at 3:00 because he always had something fun to do before my mom came to pick me up on her way home from work.
DeDad always had a garden, so in the summer Mamaw Hopper would cook vegetables from his garden and cornbread for lunch almost every day. I wasn’t allowed to help her cook because she had one of those old, gold-colored gas stoves and it would get really hot when she turned the oven on. She was always afraid I would get burned, so she would corral me by putting me on a a barstool in the corner of the kitchen away from the stove so I could talk while she worked. She made cornbread every day, and there was usually a huge spread of vegetables to choose from for lunch. DeDad grew peas, tomatoes, corn, pepper, squash, and my favorite: okra. Whenever he would come in with a 5 gallon bucket of okra in the morning, I would be so excited because that meant Mamaw was going to cook fried okra.
Mamaw and me in 1993
I loved her fried okra, and after Mamaw Hopper passed away when I was 9, my mother and I spent a few years trying to figure out exactly what she did that made it so good. Of course, that recipe wasn’t written down anywhere, so we had to go from memory. We would make a batch, taste it, and it would never be the same. We racked our brains trying to figure out what she could have done that we were forgetting.
Now, when Mamaw made fried okra, she didn’t deep fry it. She actually didn’t fry it at all. She would put a pan in the oven and get it really hot, put a little oil in the bottom of the pan, and then add the okra and bake it in the oven. I remember watching from my stool in the corner as she would take it out every 15 minutes to stir it around so it cooked evenly. It always smelled so good, and I would ask every time if it was ready yet. My mom and I were doing the exact same thing, but it just wasn’t turning out right. What we made was good, but it just wasn’t as good as Mamaw’s.
Finally, one day when we were at the grocery store, my mom reached for a bag of white cornmeal, which is what she always bought. Out of the blue, I mentioned that Mamaw used to always buy yellow cornmeal and asked why we never used the yellow kind. My mom said that she had always bought the white because thats what her mom bought, but I wanted to try the yellow, so that’s what we got.
Later, we decided to make okra. We had pretty much given up on ever figuring out what Mamaw’s exact recipe was, but our copycat was pretty good, so we made it just like always. Heat the pan, put a tiny bit of oil in the pan, pour in the frozen okra, sprinkle on some cornmeal, garlic salt, and seasoned salt, and bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.
Guess what! The yellow corn meal made a HUGE difference! It tasted exactly like Mamaw’s okra! I have had people tell me that this doesn’t make sense, because white and yellow cornmeal taste the same, but they’re wrong. The yellow cornmeal made all the difference, and my mom and I were both so happy to finally be able to make okra for my dad that tastes just like his mom’s.
So here’s what you need for Mamaw Hopper’s Okra:
1 lb bag of frozen okra
Yellow corn meal
Lowry’s garlic salt
Lowry’s seasoned salt
Oil or cooking spray
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the pan in the oven while it’s preheating so the pan gets hot (this keeps the okra from sticking to the pan).
Once the pan is hot, spray with a liberal amount of cooking spray or pour in about a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Spread the okra out into an even layer in the pan. Sprinkle about 1/8 a cup of yellow cornmeal over the okra. Season with garlic and seasoned salt to taste (I like my okra pretty salty, so I go pretty heavy with this part). Stir the okra so it’s all coated with the meal and seasoning. Bake at 400 degrees for 1 hour, taking out to stir every 15 minutes.
My dad actually likes his okra a little bit more crispy, so sometimes I stick it back in the oven for an extra 15 minutes for him. I love that the breeding is light so you can really taste the okra. This is a favorite side dish in our house, and I love that I think of my Mamaw every time I make it.