Sweet Tea, Sweet Times, and Fried Okra

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Ruth Griffin’s sweet tea always made me wanna shout. Not that I was raised the shoutin’ kind, but mixing seemingly equal amounts of Imperial Cane with pekoe leaves was the nearest I ever got to eating dessert first. When you are five, it’s almost enough to go pentecostal.


The Griffin’s had a history with our family long before I was born and, to my preschool mind, it always seemed linked with food. The hog killin’s took both families to skin. The hand-turned ice cream took both families to crank. And the summer fish fry needed every man’s catch to celebrate. By the time I came along, the pig pit was already dug, the outdoor deep-fryer was already seasoned, and Ruth’s kitchen was already famous.


Like most farm wives, Ruth served farm-to-table before it was fashionable. What gardening magazines advertised as harmony between man and earth, Ruth recognized as war against hornworms, squash beetles, and grasshoppers. Her skin was always an almond tan, not because Ruth laid out, but because she paid out to her garden in the scorching West Texas sun.


When the okra multiplied, Ruth multi-prepared. She fried it, stewed it, roasted it, and marinated it. Her most famous recipe was okra patties, a battered and fried dish that converted even the most militant okra Nazi’s into compliant, green-loving evangelists.


Rarely did Ruth’s table have left-overs, but when it did, she knew how to repurpose them. Nothing was ever thrown away. Left-over ham was hand-ground with mayonnaise and pickles for an savory ham salad. Extra corn was mixed with jalapeños, corn meal, and milk for a sizzling skillet bread. And the mashed potatoes. Wow, the mashed potatoes…. With a little egg, onion and magic, these became the best potato patties I have ever eaten.


Once the women set to cleaning up all those mounds of dishes, I usually slipped down into Ruth’s finished basement. Built with an eye toward the inevitable tornado, Ruth’s cellar doubled as an extra pantry. Lined with garden goodness from last year’s bounty, every jar was a testament to the “waste not, want not” mantra of farm life. If the garden produced it, Ruth gathered it, baked it, canned it, or shared it. Ruby red jars of jelly from wild canyon plums. Gleaming golden peaches pickled whole, with cloves and vinegar. And enough canned tomatoes to soup us through the pending tyranny of George Orwell’s “1984″. Yes, my tummy was always happy when I came home from the Griffin’s.


One summer, I didn’t come home from the Griffin’s. I stayed there for over a week while my daddy had open heart surgery. It was during those days that I found out our family relationship extended way past food. Ruth and J.J. Griffin didn’t do friendships on the halves. While I read Judy Bolton mysteries, Ruth was making my mother a lunch for the hospital. While I petted their kittens, J.J. was mowing our lawn. And while I practiced Ming Ling, Laundry Man on the piano, the Griffin’s were organizing the community to harvest my dad’s cotton.


Jess C. Scott says that “Friends are the family you choose.” My family chose the Griffin’s somewhere along the way or maybe they chose us. Either way, they became family to us. And there ain’t nothing better than a family, unless of course it’s one sharing a pitcher of sweet tea.


Photo above: Hog Killin’ with the Griffin’s (circa 1970 – L to R: Ray Tinney (my brother-in-law), John Burrow (my daddy), Howard Griffin (Ruth’s son) and unknown.

Photo at header: Time out at the swimming hole (before my time circa 1952 – L to R: Sue Griffin Stahl (Ruth’s daughter), Jewell Burrow (my mother), Viva Griffin (Ruth’s mother-in-law), Ruth Griffin)


Ruth Griffin’s Okra Patties


1 pint of sliced okra (fairly thin — Ruth always used fresh, but frozen also works)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup buttermilk
Salt and Pepper to taste


Blend all ingredients well. Drop by tablespoons full into hot grease. Brown on one side and turn. Brown other side. Drain on paper towel. Serve hot.


Note from Ruth’s daughter, Sue Stahl: “Mother always used Crisco AND bacon grease drippings to cooked this in a cast iron skillet. I don’t know if this makes any difference, but I have used a regular skillet and no bacon grease and somehow they just don’t ever taste as good as hers.”



Ruth’s Potato Patties


Beginning with 2 cups of left-over mashed potatoes, add 1 egg, 1/2 cup finely chopped onion, and 1/4 cup flour. Mix well. Drop by tablespoons in hot grease, browning on both sides. Serve with ketchup, cheese, sour cream and/or chopped green onions; or just plain.