A Silky, Slimy Tribute
by Madhu Mitra
Ozzie and I bonded over food. (No, that won't do. "Spell it out, spell it out," as Salim Sinai of Midnight's Children said.) Ozzie and I bonded over the slender, elegant, lovely, luscious okra.
Some providential design must have guided my job-searching footsteps to St. Joseph, Minnesota, where -in the early '90s-corn grew aplenty and curry was a distant, exotic dream. For an Indian, this was nothing short of gastronomic exile. Just when I had resigned myself to the limitations of my career choice, I realized how lucky I was. For I had walked into a department not merely known for its keenly discerning foodies, but for its keenly discerning southern foodies. This meant (among other delights) that my languishing love for the okra-a vegetable I had grown up eating, whose slender beauty we Indians honored by calling it the "ladyfinger," and which was practically unknown in the upper Midwest of the early '90s-found a glorious rejuvenation among colleagues transplanted from Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, and Virginia. I was surrounded by people who swooned at the mention of okra. And there was Ozzie, leading the charge of the okra lovers, scouring the shelves of upscale supermarkets, snapping up the pods wherever he found them, stewing them, freezing them, pickling them. By a silent pact, whenever either of us cooked okra, we always saved some for the other.
We ate okra whenever we could. When we couldn't, we talked about it. Munching on unimaginative northern lunches in the Richarda lounge, Ozzie and I mused-with misty-eyed longing-about the unparalleled silky texture of the tender pod cooked just right-long enough to release the subtle smoky flavor, but not too long. Never too long, I would say. But Ozzie's love for the okra was unconditional. He relished it in any form: stir-fried lightly to preserve its crispy firmness, or mushed into gumbo. I recalled nostalgically my childhood fascination for the okra flower, its pale yellow petals framing a startlingly deep purple center. I would gaze at that center, mesmerized by the promise of its imminent transformation into a green pod, ever so slightly fuzzy to the touch, a hint of moisture lurking in its velvety slenderness. Ozzie regaled us with the story of his adventurous Midwestern friend and her hapless attempt to grow this exotic southern vegetable. Believing in the worth of big-sized yields, she let her okra grow, and, at the end of the summer, proudly presented Ozzie with a foot-long pod-as hard and inedible as a relay racer's baton.
Colleagues listening to us wondered aloud how okra lovers got past the sliminess of the vegetable. I, with my Indian-born culinary arrogance, would say, "No, no-if you cook it properly, it does not taste slimy." Ozzie, with characteristic nonchalance, would retort, "Slimy? What slimy?" It is from Ozzie that I learned a valuable lesson: slime is in the mind of the taster. For that, and for over two decades of friendship, advice, wisdom, grand feasts, and grander conversations about food, I will remain forever enriched. I wish Ozzie pleasant okra-filled days ahead.