Okra Worship

No one knows exactly how the okra got to Pearl's steam table, but everyone's glad it did.
Deron Neblett

The fried plantain slices at Fusion Café are laid out like the spokes of a wheel, with a colorful tropical salsa at the hub. The crisp flavors of the chopped pineapple, red onion and red and green peppers offer a wild counterpoint to the dense and creamy caramelized banana.

I order the curry chicken, a rich stew of chicken and potatoes in a spicy Caribbean-style curry sauce. I've had the dish often in Jamaica and Trinidad, and the version at Fusion Café is right on the money. My dining partner has the pasta Tchiapatoulas, fusilli pasta tossed with blackened shrimp, scallops and crawfish. The seafood is tasty, and the smoky chunks of andouille sausage give the dish some Louisiana zip.

The food is excellent, but there's something odd about this sleek, modern restaurant. The original Fusion Café on Main Street offered reggae music, Jamaican patties and down-home soul food all mixed into one funky package. Lily-white Rice Village seems like a strange site for trying to re-create that blend. And I don't understand the name Fusion Café at either location. What exactly is being combined?


Fusion Caf / Pearl's Soul Food Caf

Fusion Caf, 2442 Times Boulevard, 713-522-1884. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Pasta Tchiapatoulas: $12.95
Curry chicken: $7.75

Pearl's Soul Food Caf, 7730 West Bellfort, 713-773-3040. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Smoked pork ribs: $6.99
Lunch special (meat, three vegetables and corn bread): $4.99
Side dishes: $1

More from "The Future of Fusion" series

Granted, you don't see Southern, Caribbean and Cajun/Creole dishes on the same menu very often, but Fusion serves the cuisines side by side, not all jumbled together. Maybe the cafe got its name because each of these African-American cooking styles is already a fusion cuisine in and of itself.

African-New World cooking is different from most other fusion cuisines. In Asia, America and elsewhere, fusion cuisines are most often created by cultural interaction; they reflect the underlying sociological processes of creolization or assimilation. Early African cuisine in the New World, on the other hand, had little to do with cultural blending, reflecting instead a cultural uprooting.

Fusion and creolization would come later, in Louisiana and across the Caribbean, as African cooks put their spin on French and Spanish dishes and mixed with other ethnic groups. An Indo-African fusion cuisine arose, for instance, when indentured servants from India began to replace freed slaves in the sugarcane fields of Jamaica and Trinidad. Rotis (Caribbean wraps) and Jamaican curry chicken and curry goat are products of this Indo-African blend.

But in its earliest form, African- American fusion was a simple blend of African cooking and New World ingredients. Though somewhat influenced by Native Americans, who demonstrated the uses of indigenous materials, the foods mainly represented an effort by slaves to hang on to their Africanness in a strange environment.

Maintaining African cooking traditions was especially important to the peoples from present-day Gambia and Benin. Foods and herbs play a central role in the Yoruban religions of this part of West Africa. Such was also the case in the Yoruban-inspired fusion religions: Candomblé in Brazil, and Santeria and voodoo in the Caribbean.

Smoked pork ribs are the Sunday special at Pearl's Soul Food Café on West Bellfort. But then comes the hard part of the "meat and three" equation: which of the soulful vegetables to order. I start with yams.

"They're steamed first, then we add sugar and cinnamon," a beautiful woman with café-au-lait skin and light gray eyes explains from behind the counter. "You can't boil yams or they fall apart."

Black-eyed peas are my second choice from the steam table. Then she catches me ogling the okra. "It's cooked with tomatoes and corn," she says. "We call it goulash. It's our no. 1 seller."

I unload my cafeteria tray at a booth by the window. The little dining room is clean, bright and cheerful. A brick floor, wood-paneled walls, fake hanging plants and stained-glass light fixtures over every table make the place look like an expanded breakfast nook. There is a hush over Pearl's this afternoon; the other patrons, all of whom are black, are riveted to a TV in the corner showing the Boston-New Jersey playoff game.

The friendly staff and easygoing atmosphere make Pearl's my favorite soul food restaurant in Houston. But it's the huge portions of seemingly homemade food that really make you feel like a guest at Sunday dinner. The ribs are lightly smoked and fairly tender. From time to time, I dip a little meat into the barbecue sauce I ordered on the side, but ultimately I decide I like it better without. The yams are sweet, and the black-eyed peas have reduced to a pleasant mush, but the okra is the standout. The tomato and corn add a complementary backdrop of colors, textures and tastes to the star-shaped slices. No wonder it's Pearl's no. 1 seller -- it's some of the best okra I've ever had.

According to most cookbooks, okra was brought to the New World by African slaves. There is no doubt that okra came to the New World via Africa; the word okra comes from the Twi language. (In Umbundu, okra is called ngombo, from which the English word gumbo is derived. The connection between ngombo and the Louisiana stew has long been a food-writer obsession.) But lately the folklore about how okra came over from Africa has been subjected to closer examination.  

"I've never met a scholar who believed that the slaves really brought seeds with them to the New World. The notoriously brutal conditions imposed during capture, transportation and sale must largely rule this out," Robert Voeks, associate professor of geography at California State University at Fullerton, told me on the phone a few years ago when I interviewed him on the subject. "These legends about slaves bringing okra seeds and other plants to the New World come from Candomblé folklore."

Candomblé is the most widely practiced religion among African-Brazilians of the Bahia region. Like some forms of Santeria and voodoo, it coexists with Catholicism in a complex system in which Yoruban nature spirits are syncretized with Catholic saints. For instance, when practitioners of these religions celebrate the feast of Saint Catherine in a Catholic church, they are simultaneously worshiping the Yoruban orisha Oshun, goddess of freshwater lakes and streams.

The names of the orishas vary from sect to sect, but on each feast day, adherents prepare the nature god's favorite food. And when a voodoo or Santeria priestess wants to encourage a certain spirit to visit someone, she will place its preferred food on the supplicant's head. The three vegetables I chose from Pearl's steam table are each claimed by several orishas. Obatala, voodoo ruler of the clouds, likes black-eyed peas, and Chango, the thunder spirit, is partial to yams.

Carurú, an okra stew, is the food of the Ibeji, the twin gods of procreation and reproduction. While it may be the food of the gods, Voeks doesn't recommend the dish. "It tastes like slime with seeds in it," he says. The symbolism is pretty obvious.

Voeks has done a lot of detective work on the mystery of how West African plants came to the New World. He has shown that in some cases, freed slaves actually returned to Africa and shipped the missing ingredients. But in the case of okra, yams and black-eyed peas, he thinks there is a much simpler explanation. "There is no documentation, but the logical conclusion is that the Portuguese brought them over." Slave owners, simply trying to keep their laborers healthy and productive, procured the African vegetables with no idea they were aiding them in the practice of the slaves' outlawed "paganism."

While voodoo and Santeria have long been considered pagan cults by mainstream Christians in the United States, things seem to be changing. According to Tanu T. Henry, a staff writer for Africana.com, these religions are enjoying a renaissance among people of African descent. A voodoo conference in Philadelphia and a study group in California got the ball rolling in 1997, he says, and now African-American celebrities are jumping on the bandwagon. Self-help author Iyanla Vanzant is a Yoruba priestess, he reports, and actor Wesley Snipes not only embraces Yoruba but is helping to popularize a spiritual form of Afro-Brazilian martial arts and dance called Capoeira.

Henry quotes James Lorand Matory, professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, who sees a new wave of black pride sweeping the world now that apartheid, American Jim Crow laws and African colonialism have all been abolished: "African religions are entering the mainstream because black people throughout the world have gained the courage to become adherents of them," Matory says.

There are no black-eyed peas at Fusion Café, manager Ludwell Taylor tells me. There's no okra, either. They do have yams sometimes, though. I'm trying to understand what makes this African-American restaurant so different when Taylor drops the bomb.

"We don't really look at it as an African-American restaurant," he says. "Over the last three weeks, I'd estimate our clientele has been 70 percent white."

And what about the the restaurant's name? "The concept is diversity," he says. "The fusion is a blend of different cuisines, but also a fusion of black and white Americans, all coming together in one restaurant."

It seems that mainstream white Houstonians are avid consumers of African-American cooking, especially when it's done in their neighborhood and to their tastes. They may not be eating okra, black-eyed peas and yams like they do at Pearl's, but give them time. Capoeira dance classes are already a popular extracurricular activity in Houston schools -- for both white and black kids. And I predict religiously significant Yoruban foods will be turning up soon at a holiday celebration near you. (Think sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving, black-eyed peas on New Year's Day and any excuse for gumbo.)  

In fact, Yoruban food traditions are so much a part of the culture of the American South that we barely notice their Africanness. Fusion Café's success in Rice Village is a striking illustration of how deeply West African culture is rooted in the United States.

"The Future of Fusion" looked at five Houston fusion cuisines in an attempt to understand what the foods say about the cultures that created them. The complete series can be found online and will be presented at an academic panel titled "Global Food? Fusion, Creolization and Hybridity in Culinary Culture" at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Houston this November.

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