Today’s letter is “O” and we’re talking about Okra.
Yes, that Okra – “a flowering plant in the mallow family…valued for its edible green seed pods.”
In my case, “valued” might be too strong a word. Along with “enjoyed,” “appreciated,” “eaten,” and “capable of being ingested without impolite faces and inappropriate comparisons with things we don’t discuss at the table.”
You might say I don’t like it much.
Saturday night I had dinner with friends at an Eritrean restaurant in San Francisco. We’ve eaten there before and I love the food. It’s worth the four hour round trip drive and all the tolls between. Eritrean food requires some fortitude if it’s not something you’re used to. The meal is served family-style, in a large platter or plate at the center of the table, and there are no utensils. You scoop your food using pieces of inerja, a yeasty flatbread common to the region (and seldom seen anywhere else). A typical plate looks something like this:
It’s delicious – and spicy, and very good for sharing with friends who like to talk over a meal. (The Inerja is the bread sitting underneath the food in this photo – which I found via Wikipedia and am using per the creative commons license.)
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the okra.
A few minutes into dinner, I found myself staring at a suspiciously familiar mix of vegetables and sauce. It took up just one corner of the plate – which was good, because I avoided it like the okra-infested plague it appeared to be. One of my friends asked what it was, and I responded, “Okra.”
I silently congratulated myself on my new-found self-editing ability as another friend said “with jalapenos.”
Jalapenos? With Okra? I’d never heard of such a thing. In my experience, Okra is nasty, often undercooked, and overused in cuisine which would be improved by its absence. To say I’m not fond of okra is like claiming the Titanic had a minor moisture problem. I avoid it whenever possible, and when it’s not possible I avoid it anyway.
Until someone served it with jalapenos.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but to my surprise it also counters distaste. One bite, I thought. What harm can one bite do? So I tried it. And liked it. In fact, I liked it a lot. The spice of the jalapeno and extra heat in the sauce made the okra taste … good. Not just edible but downright tasty.
Which, of course, got me thinking. Many things in life are a matter of taste. Food, music, art and entertainment. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the places we live and the company we enjoy.
Also the books we read. And the ones we write.
To some people, mystery novels are ice-cream sundaes with fudge and cherries on top. Others consider them bowls of okra sorbet. The best novel ever written isn’t special to everyone – and the manuscript you just finished won’t ring every agent’s bell. Don’t expect it to. But also, keep trying until you find the one for whom you’re not just okra…you’re tasty okra with jalapeno sauce.
And that applies to the rest of life as well. Don’t assume you’re less than worthy because everyone doesn’t appreciate you at once. Don’t give up your calling if success doesn’t happen instantly. Reflect, improve, persevere and never stop learning. Make yourself the best that you can be, and you may be surprised whose mind you’ll change.
If I can learn lessons from okra, the sky’s the limit for the rest of you.