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All hail Okra Man!

It's been years since I took part in a unique annual tradition in the South Carolina town where I grew up. But this weekend, with the future Mrs. Wuzzardo in tow so she can see a piece of my childhood, I plan to make my triumphant return to the Irmo Okra Strut.

Courtesy: Irmo Okra StrutThe what?

Yes, I said the Irmo Okra Strut. A two-day festival centered around the furry, little green pods. But unlike most small-town festivals, the Okra Strut has little to do with a local cashcrop, like the Peanut Party in nearby Pelion or, closer to my current home, Burgaw's Blueberry Festival.

Instead, the Okra Strut evolved from a radio host's joke into a fundraiser that helped build a library. And along the way, it led to countless pounds of boiled and now fried okra consumed in okra eating contests and the creation and evolution of festival mascot Okra Man. Yes, to undertand the Okra Strut, you must experience. And that is why I'm taking my fiancee home to see a bit of my childhood at play Friday night.

Sadly, we will have to leave town before Saturday morning's parade and the arts and crafts fair in the high school parking lot, which will feature an attempt to set a world record for the most people playing Simon Says.

Over the weekend I ran across an article an old friend of mine wrote for the Associated Press about the Okra Strut. In it, he wrote about his memories (as well as his parents' memory of him being afraid of Okra Man as a kid), which got me thinking of mine.

I first experienced the Okra Strut as part of my elementary school's parade entry in 1985. Irmo native Leeza Gibbons was the grand marshall that year (other grand marshalls during my childhood included Benji Gregory, who played Brian Tanner on the NBC Show ALF). Later I would march with my Cub Scout den. As a Boy Scout, we ran a booth at the arts and crafts fair that included games for kids to play and a Coke trailer to make some money for the troop.

In middle school the big thing was to meet your friends at Friday night's Street Fair in the Kroger parking lot. There was plenty of fair-type food, including, I'm sure, some fried okra, to eat and at least one year, even a drink labeled "Okra Juice." The neon green slop turned out to be a lime drink with way too much artificial flavoring. I wonder if they still serve that junk. Perhaps it's passed into Okra Strut history like the Okra Bowl (a rarely schedule home football game at Irmo High on Okra Strut weekend) and another Friday-night tradition: The cricket-eating contest. I don't know how that started. But in the late '80s, I guess it was, men would actually see who could eat the most live crickets in a sitting. I think they finally ended it because the same guy kept winning. His trick was covering the crickets in chocolate sauce to keep them from moving so much and to get them down a little more easily, not mention tastily. He became such a cult hero, there were t-shirts with a cartoon of him eating chocolate slathered crickets. True story.

The Okra Strut is indeed something to experience, whether you like Okra or not. I personally do not, except when it plays its role as the key ingredient in gumbo. And by the way, if you think the idea of an Okra Strut is weird, take a look at some of the other festivals across South Carolina, including the Chitlin' Strut and the Catfish Stomp.

By: Kevin Wuzzardo