That Time You Defined Virtue--Why values aren’t enough
It begins with okra. Fried, that is.
About five foods have placed a spell on me. So great is their charm that when within my reach, I am lured to at least one guilty pleasure bite in spite of all the willpower I muster. We’re not talking fancy stuff here. Sautéed sweetbreads, lobster, foie gras, snooty stinky cheese, and heaps of béarnaise are all certain ways to my clogged heart. But, like my favorite songs, those delicacies are a sometime thing, never overplayed.
What I speak of are the cheap yet consistent bites that find my happy spot on the first try: Twizzlers--a standby since the 80s and notably updated with the Twizzlers Pull and Peel variety, Brown’s Dairy chocolate milk--one that needs no updating ever, taco-flavored Doritos in the orange bag--Nacho is okay, but its ugly stepsibling is the real hero in the chip aisle, and clotted cream--hard to find, but when I do I am ready for hibernation because it’s like Christmas morning with each bite, and I thank the fine British folks for accidentally leaving the heavy cream out overnight whenever ago only to discover a fine fatty layer atop ideal for fat lovers like me.
But none of them hold the same place of honor as the greatest comfort food of all time, one that when fried, the little girl who used to ask for seconds of it at the Piccadilly Cafeteria on Sundays in Lake Charles, Louisiana with her grandmother, comes to life.
We’re talking okra. Fried, that is.
If it’s on the menu, I’m ordering it. If it’s on the buffet, I’m taking thirds. And if anyone tells you it’s just a cheap side item, they have no soul. It’s a superb filler in tacos. It is the greatest crouton substitute since, well, croutons. Plus, it’s the most satisfying car snack going. Forget road fries. And yes, I’ll even eat it alongside sweetbreads, lobster, and foie gras, and lavish it with heaps of béarnaise. Bon appetit, haters!
But fried okra is a private passion. I used to fry it up at home, scratch-made, like a good Southern Belle--sometimes with buttermilk, sometimes without, only to eat all of it alone. My family, it seems, doesn’t have the same level of esteem for my supreme staple. So there I would stand, hunched over an entire platter of golden fried goodness--lonely, and eventually nauseated, like I’d just been dumped. Some losers drown their sorrows in a carton of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. And I? I take the vegetable less traveled straight to a pity party.
So now fried okra and I go it alone. It’s sort of like being a closet smoker. My loved ones know my vice. They find evidence in forgotten to-go cartons on the passenger seat of my car, or quietly look away when I order it at restaurants, pretending it isn’t happening. Then the other day, I was at my neighborhood grocery store and routinely passed the hot bar to see if my fried sweetie was on the menu. It was, and blocking the self-serve tray was a couple--a couple at odds over okra.
“It gets caught in my teeth. Those sharp ones get me each time.”
“You don’t have to eat ‘em!”
They were old, as old as okra itself, and probably having the same argument they’d had for the last sixty years.
The husband muttered just loud enough, “I don’t know how you eat that. Gross.”
To which the wife nudged him aside and said, “YOU don’t get to decide if they are gross to me.”
She ladled herself a hearty scoop and left her beloved scratching his head.
As for me, I bought two servings that day, one for the car, and one for later. I warmed it up at dinner and chowed on it greedily in front of my family, “Mmmming” each time I popped one into my mouth.
“YOU don’t get to decide if they are gross because YOU don’t have to eat them.”
It was one small step for fried okra. One giant leap for me.
As my dinner mates essentially rolled their eyes and went back to their basic vegetables, I thought how simple it is to go about our business--when it comes to food. Outside of say, elementary school, people generally accept our business and move on--when it comes to food. My little family eats about two cartons of eggs a week. I can’t remember the last time I had a fried, scrambled, or egg-over-easy because I happen to think eggs are the most repulsive food on the planet. They’re so jiggly and the whole concept of eating an unborn chicken makes me shiver, but who am I to stop someone from eating the little sacks of slime? You do eggs. I’ll do okra. We can live together harmoniously and each have a lovely meal--because it’s just food.
If only we could apply such ideals to the rest of our lives, outside of home where norms are decided, saturate culture, and are completely accepted.
Last week, I took a sharp turn here in my hub of thoughts and got told by me to myself for being too soft because of using self-care as an excuse to avoid hurdling my biggest obstacles. I’d struck a nerve that buzzed in both directions. Some readers were motivated, but not everyone. Then one reader said something rather remarkable regarding my admittance that I wished I was a morning person. She said that she always found it strange that morning people are considered virtuous while night owls aren’t. Like, who decided that?
Probably the same people who continued to care what their friends ate after elementary school.
On paper, virtue is a behavior showing high moral standards. We associate virtue with ideals like honesty, courage, generosity, compassion, self-discipline, and wisdom. In literature, virtue is akin to strength. Shakespeare wrote that it was “mighty work” to be virtuous. Biblically, to be virtuous is near divinity. And somewhere between the two, throughout time, a picture was pasted together defining someone virtuous: a value warrior--one who embodies "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely…"
What-ever! What defines all the whatevers?
When I embarked on last week’s essay, I had been enlightened by the possibility that what I thought was good enough may not be. I had been living off of excuses and not my personal drive. And I wondered if each time I felt satisfied with my work and in my personal life, if that satisfaction caused my goals to settle instead of progressing further. But there was something especially important about my breakthrough last week. I was understanding my appetite, my taste for success, and just how much subsistence I needed to keep going. Like my hankering for fried okra, it was a private passion. I can offer another a taste, but I don’t get to decide if it suits their palette.
Ideals like honesty, integrity, prudence, and all the others are undeniably valued. Without them, our society succumbs to greed and hate and everything undeniably vicious. But just like I don’t get to tell you when you have reached your winning streak, no one gets to tell any of us how to live out our values. We can inspire one another, as I hope I have inspired you, but we define how we reach the finish line. You eat your eggs. I’ll eat my okra. We’ll both get there on our time.
I’m not sure who staked claim on the early bird getting the best worms, or cleanliness being equivalent to godliness, or why organization has the most control. But I do know that some of the greatest talents were night owls: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Jackson Pollock. Some of the greatest parents have the messiest homes where the happiest children are living their best lives. And my father, the genius and great architect who left his mark throughout the South in countless churches and schools, was the most disorganized mess of a near perfect human being. They are all winners of their game, a game they decided how to play.
Values are undeniably essential to society. But values alone are not virtuous. Virtues are actions. Virtues are what is the reality. Virtues are how it actually went down. A value is what we want. A virtue is what we are willing to do to get it. And sometimes it doesn’t matter how we get it. What matters is that we got it at all.
I know enough to know that last year my 40th birthday wish was to never turn away from what makes me me. All the unconventional choices, all the this ways and that ways that mark the paths I’ve taken, and all that I hunger for still are uniquely me. They are valuable. And they are virtuous.
This week marks 41 years of my virtues. I don’t know how many years of virtue are on you, but they are yours to define and yours to celebrate.
Might I inspire your virtues with a side of okra? Fried, that is.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.