Okra & Tomatoes

My “memories” of okra &  tomatoes from my childhood may or may not be actual memories. Instead, they may be artificial recollections created from conversations with family members about foods my mother cooked when I was a child. I think I recall my mother making okra & tomatoes, but I’m not sure those memories are real. Not that it matters.

Apparently, I grew up eating okra & tomatoes. I’ve liked the dish for as long as I can remember. I still do. In fact, I seem to be enjoying it more with every opportunity to taste it. I was surprised, after searching my blog, that I had written only once about okra & tomatoes and, then, only in passing. The absence of posts about okra & tomatoes is a shameful oversight I am now trying to correct. You see, okra & tomatoes connects me to cultures for which I have no business connecting. I grew up in Texas. I spent four years in Illinois. I spent just under a year in New York. I traveled extensively outside of Texas, but rarely to the deep south. I never got to India, though I thought about it more than occasionally. The absence of India and the deep south (of the USA) from memories of my youth should have blocked an almost unnatural attachment to okra & tomatoes. Why, you ask? I’ll tell you why. Mind you, this explanation is not necessarily based in fact but in fancy. It could have some seeds of truth to it, but if so they are entirely accidental and have been soaked in creative juices to aid in germination. Well, that’s not entirely true, either. Seeds of truth about okra & tomatoes actually gave rise the creation of this explanation about the roots of okra & tomatoes and the reason there is not a natural explanation for my affinity for them. Got it? Let’s begin, anyway.

Okra is, depending on who you believe, indigenous to Ethiopia, Western Africa, or South Asia. I choose to believe the roots of okra originated in South Asia. As evidence, I point to all the Indian comestible dishes that include bhindi, the English version of the Hindi word for the plant we call okra. In my world view, the plant migrated to northern Africa, where it was renamed okra, thanks to various African languages. That name caught on with English-speaking people, including slave traders who exported human beings to the Caribbean and, later, the land that would become the deep south in the USA.  Remember, these “facts” flow from a fertile imagination, not from any defensible research. That having been said, the cultivation of okra in the deep south led to its consumption by the folks who were lucky enough to be introduced to the plant. Frankly, I cannot imagine why anyone would think the stuff is edible. It grows on thorny plants and looks and feels like it could be dangerous. That notwithstanding, someone decided to give it a try. And that was a wise decision. Soon (we don’t know how to measure “soon,” but it obviously it wasn’t appreciable a length of time greater than “before long”), eating okra became the rage in the southern USA. Simultaneously, or possibly before or after, people on the Indian subcontinent were eating okra, AKA bhindi. They might have been using different spices and different ingredients with which to pair the vegetable (vegetable pairings were just as popular whenever that was as wine and food pairings are today), but that didn’t really matter. They liked the food.

Now, among the pairings, both in India and along the African-Caribbean-US Coastal slave trading routes, tomatoes were quite popular. Okra and tomatoes, with or without exotic spices and such, became wildly popular in India and the Deep South, as I’ll henceforth call the American slavery belt. If I had grown up in either the Deep South or in India, my affinity for okra & tomatoes would make sense and could be easily explained as a cultural gustatory artifact of my upbringing. But, as I explained earlier, I was not reared in either place. Consequently, my enjoyment of the dish cannot be explained through my cultural connections.

Unless, of course, I was adopted from Indian or Southern parents at a relatively late age and memories of my early years were later erased. That might explain my limited recollection of my youth. I only thought I was born in Brownsville and grew up in Corpus Christi. In fact, I may one day discover, I was born either in the slums of Kolkata (AKA Calcutta) or in a waterfront shack near the mouth of the Mississippi. Kidnapped as an infant, I was taken to an orphanage in Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Mexico. There, the people I knew as my parents, unable to bring into the world by traditional means the sixth child they had always wanted (a body begins to wear out after five or more deliveries),  opted to adopt me and raise me as their own. Little did they know at the time that my cultural DNA, as well as my physical DNA, would predispose me to an almost unnatural attraction to okra and tomatoes. My mother, whose own southern ancestry ingrained in her an appreciation for okra, nurtured my enjoyment of the vegetable. My father, who may have had connections to senior level officials in the Kolkata shipyard though I doubt it, appreciated okra as well, though his passion was for the vegetable breaded and fried. I inherited that passion, as well, though I am just as passionate about okra and tomatoes, if not more so.

Regardless of my history, okra’s history, or my physical or cultural DNA, I have a fondness for okra and tomatoes that borders on devotion. I’ve learned that people who enjoy the flavor and texture of okra and tomatoes are an order of magnitude more intelligent than the average riff-raff roaming the streets and alleys and long, lonely highways of this planet. I’ve learned, too, that they are better looking than their non-okra-and-tomatoes-loving counterparts. Moreover, okra & tomato aficionados tend to live longer and their cars get better gas mileage. And it is not well known that okra’s healing powers, contained in the vegetable’s gelatinous goo some find so offensive, are so extraordinary that people who eat sufficient amounts can actually regrow lost or forgotten limbs.

Take, for instance, little Tory Brian Jones. The last time I saw little Tory Brian, he was about four feet tall. His mother, Melissa Brian Jones, called me the other day to chat. During our conversation, she said “You won’t recognize Tory Brian. He’s grown another foot since you last saw him.” Later, when she came over to visit and brought Tory Brian with her, I was stunned to see that he had, indeed, grown another foot that poked straight up out of the top of his head. I recommended to Melissa Brian that she ought to put a sock and a shoe on it so they wouldn’t have any trouble getting seated at upscale restaurants.  Admittedly, little Tory Brian was a strange child. He craved okra the way most children crave sugar. His mother often found him in Pappy Brian’s big okra garden tearing okra off the plants and eating it raw. His face, scratched raw from the tiny spines that cover the plant, would be covered with okra slime when she found him. Due to the plant’s healing powers, the scratches would disappear by the time she got the boy inside and washed his face. Actually, Melissa Brian used okra slime to heal her son’s chicken pox scars, too. The lesions from his chicken pox blisters covered little Tory Brian’s entire body and left deep, circular scars in his flesh from head to toe. Melissa Brian bathed the boy in okra slime. Miraculously, the next day the boy’s skin was as smooth as a new born baby’s. Melissa Brian, believing she had witnessed a miracle, ran to the church to tell her pastor. The pastor told her to keep the miracle a secret. Years later, after Pastor Nelson Brian Gobson was defrocked for falsely reporting miracles, a secret okra farm was discovered on property he owned in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. He had, it turned out, processed okra and stored its goo in enormous vats. When someone came to him seeking a healing miracle, he simply ladled up some okra goo and secretly slathered it over the person needing the healing, then claimed the redemption was a miracle resulting from his personal conversation with the almighty. We now know, of course, it wasn’t that at all. It was the okra. It’s almost magical.

Now this entire story may seem far-fetched, but I assure you it is as true as the day is tall. Some people might read this story and say to themselves, “The fella who wrote this story is crazy in the head and ought to be locked up for observation.” Fortunately, absurdist fantasy fiction is not a disorder as defined in the DSM-5 (that’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, promulgated by the American Psychiatric Association, for those unfamiliar with the lingo). So, I am free to roam the planet, unrestrained by unconventional wisdom about my mental state, as it were. I am not quite sure why I am writing absurdist fantasy fiction lately. Perhaps it is, indeed, a disorder that should be covered by the DSM-5. I’ll investigate and get back to you if I so choose. Until then, I think I’ll go boil a potato, inasmuch as it’s a shade after 6:30 and I have developed a powerful hunger. I’d like to have okra and tomatoes, but that’s what we had for lunch yesterday. You eat too much of that stuff, you grow another foot around your mid-section.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to Okra & Tomatoes

  1. bevwigney says:

    Good meditation on okra and tomatoes – and on Tory Brian Jones — haha.

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