Okra, that iconic if off-putting Southern cultivar, is unusual for its ability to marry the contrasting textures of crunchiness and slimy goo. To best get past the slime, cooks most often pickle it, deep-fry it, or roast it until it’s charred. It would seem that efforts to find new ways to harness the challenging vegetable would have long been exhausted—and so, I was surprised to open Facebook a few months ago and find a thread extolling okra-seed oil on the page of renowned food historian David Shields, author of Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine. He called the okra-seed oil produced by Georgia’s Oliver Farm a “fresh, vegetal, and lustrous oil of great culinary quality.” Pressed for more information, Shields told me it’s a “unique finishing oil, medium-bodied with a slight peppery finish. Salad is its main locus, and it should be used in pickling and in any vinegar and oil combo, such as artichoke hearts or hearts of palm.”
Just as intriguing is the flour that can be derived from okra seeds, which a colleague of Shields’s, Ken Albala of California’s University of the Pacific, had successfully crafted into noodles; Albala noted the flour would be perfect for pancakes.
I couldn’t quite imagine it. Okra seeds look like two rows of pearly plant teeth when the pod is halved. How could those tiny seeds actually transform into fluffy pancakes or chef-worthy oil?
To find out, I took a trip down to Pitts, Georgia—150 miles south of Atlanta and boasting a population of 302—to meet Clay Oliver, the 43-year-old working to innovate his family’s century-old farm. Oliver Farm has won regional, national, and international awards for its cold-pressed oils and flours, including those derived from sunflowers, pecans, benne seeds, and, most famously, green peanuts. The oils retain the nutrients and flavors of the seeds and nuts from which they were pressed; the flours are gluten-free, fresh, and fragrant. Oliver Farm products are used by chefs such as Steven Satterfield of Miller Union, Ryan Smith of Staplehouse, and Maricela Vega of 8Arm. In 2016, when food writer Kim Severson profiled Oliver and his green peanut oil in the New York Times, there was no doubt he had arrived.
Today, Oliver produces the equivalent of 80,000 bottles of oil a year. All the oils and flours are extracted by Oliver, his wife, Valerie, and one full-time employee in a building that serves as an office, warehouse, and production facility.
In front of a weathered, one-room log cabin set against a carpet of cotton fields, Oliver greets me with a quick smile. “This was my great-great-granddaddy’s house,” he says of the cabin, then gestures to a larger white house next door. “That’s the house I grew up in.”
Oliver has told the story many times of how, in the years after his father died and the recession hit, he began to transition from commercial farming to growing sunflowers and, in 2012, to cold-pressing sunflower and other oils. Okra-seed oil, which he began pressing in 2017, is his biggest challenge yet. “Okra seed is really, really hard and puts a strain on the press,” he explains. “Only one of my presses is strong enough for it.”
The okra-seed oil appears to be worth the effort. “It blows my mind,” says Smith of Staplehouse. “It’s incredibly tactile and savory, with more umami and viscosity than most oils.”
8Arm’s Vega uses it as a finishing oil on dishes ranging from an heirloom-tomato salad to Sea Island peas with chard stems, broccoli, and pickled raisins. “It has a mineral earthiness to it that complements raw and fresh flavors,” she says.
“It pops with flavor without any of the typical okra muddiness,” says Greg Lipman, chef and owner of Piastra on the Marietta Square. “I drizzle it over chicken and fish and put it in relishes.”
Okra-seed flour, in turn, is great for drilling down flavor in gumbos, says Matt Marcus, chef and owner of Watershed on Peachtree. “It starts an explosion of flavor throughout,” he says.
Oliver’s interest in okra oil was spurred by a Facebook conversation a few years back between Shields and Chris Smith (who later wrote The Whole Okra: A Seed to Stem Celebration). “I went to a local store and bought a single bag of okra seeds and tried it,” Oliver says. Now, he buys 40 bags, each weighing 50 pounds, at a time from various suppliers.
“I would love to find a local grower and build an industry right here,” he says; he’s currently able to source fresh, raw peanuts and pecans from local growers and sunflowers from his own farm.
It is late afternoon now, and Oliver is strolling through one of his 150 acres of sunflower fields, where the enormous, golden blossoms bend toward us like benign aliens. There is only blue sky and green-gold expanse. Just then, he bends down to pick up an army-green metal tractor toy. “This belonged to my brother and me,” he explains. “I am the fifth generation to work this farm. My kids will be the sixth.”
This article appears in our November 2019 issue.