The 12th annual Okra Festival in Burkville, Ala., overflowed this summer with its largest crowd to date. I finally had an opportunity to go and meet the savvy, outspoken and downright kind founder, Barbara Evans. She and her Lowndes County community produced a memorable okra extravaganza infused with Guitar Slim’s soulful sounds.
“Okra, it is like our people; that okra, you know, it’s strong, it can weather the drought, it keeps on growing, keeps producing, as long as you pick it. … It really shows the strength of the Southern people. I think it is a sign of hope …” Evans said.
Okra is about more than food — it’s community
Okra got organized and prettied up in her many recipes, parading the family property oiled, fried, baked, stuffed, sautéed, spiced and gumbo-ed. The treasured vegetable partnered with onions, tomatoes, garlic and barbecue; got all French and fancied in a quiche; and even simmered and stewed with an oxen’s tail. In her many guises, okra accompanied artists, writers, cooks, chefs, food vendors, farmers and spiritual folks.
Take a listen to this audio interview while Guitar Slim and the Soulful Saints perform in the background. Hear the Okra Festival vendors share why they attend and what they vend and get a glimpse of what folks are talking about. It features Evans, the Okra Festival’s co-founder and organizer, talking about the origins of the annual event, how okra represents Southern culture and its importance in these challenging times.
You can hear author and social historian Donald P. Stone talk about his grandfather William James Edwards, and Edwards’ connection to Booker T. Washington and the rural school movement; and Simon and Debra Harris deliver their famed seafood gumbo and discuss why they come to the festival yearly. You’ll also hear Janice Douglas, the niece of late Aunt Alice Stewart (Evans’ co-conspirator and Okra Festival co-founder), who reminds us of her own rich cultural heritage from both her parents’ sides and how she values the lessons her elders passed on. Finally, Lisa Lang Stallworth, along with her partner Barbara Robinson, shares her memories of her ancestors, picking okra as a child on these same fields and why she and many others appreciate the Okra Festival and Evans, the beloved organizer.
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Top photo: Amos Paul Kennedy and Okra Festival founder Barbara Evans display a poster during the annual event. Credit: Sarah Khan