This time of year, the back roads around New Iberia and St. Martinville are dotted with flowering rows of okra, and in backyard gardens throughout Acadiana, residents are beginning to pick their first pieces of the fuzzy green vegetable. While okra is traditionally thought of as an accompaniment to shrimp in local gumbos, its crop comes during mid-summer, growing upright and prime for stewing, sautéeing or pickling.

The African-American Museum in St. Martinville takes advantage of okra's bounty at its annual Okra Cook-Off Food Festival, scheduled this year for Saturday, July 29. (The 4-year-old festival was originally held in November, forcing cooks to use frozen okra.) "We changed our dates for okra season," says museum Curator/Director Danielle Fontenette. Local cooks will come out to New Market Street ready to prepare fresh okra from their own gardens or local farmers markets. "So many different cooks cook okra so many different ways," says Fontenette. "Everyone comes out and cooks okra the way they do it: smothered, gumbo ... one year we found out there was a lady who fries okra in a pie."

Cook-off participants arrive at 6 a.m. to begin heating up their pots, so their dishes will be ready for 9 a.m. judging. Music by Sha-Me-noo and the Zydeco Drifters starts at 1 p.m., and the African-American Museum will be open for okra presentations and history. Children's face painting even includes the option of a bright green okra stalk.

The festival and cook-off evolved out of the museum's history with the West African country of Senegal and its yearly mission trips to Africa. "One of the things in the beginning, when we were looking at the connection, we were amazed to find the West Africans brought the okra with them on the slave ships," says Fontenette. "It's been a part of our culture forever. We're celebrating our heritage."


For more info on the Okra Cook-Off Food Festival, call Danielle Fontenette at 394-2250.

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