Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the April 14, 2008 Newsletter written in the community of 28 de Junio, in the Central Valley 8 kms east of Pujiltic, Chiapas, MÉXICO
about 800 meters in elevation, ± LAT. 16° 18'N, LONG. -92° 28'

Last Friday I was hiking through the Tzotzil-speaking higher outskirts of Venustiano Carranza with Andrés' brother Don Sebastián when I espied the weather-bleached, past-prime, very familiar plant seen below:

Okra grown for seeds for coffee substitute

I've seldom seen okra, or gumbo, ABELMOSCHUS ESCULENTUS, growing down here, but here it was, the plants a gangly ten feet tall and the fruit pods in the process of splitting to release BB-sized seeds. There was no evidence of any of the pods having been cut earlier for eating.

Okra was introduced into the Americas from Africa so I wondered what name Tzotzil-speaking Sebastián might have for it. I was hoping for a Tzotzilized name rooted in either the words okra or gumbo, which I imagined might be of African origin.

"Café," replied Don Sebastián. "Roast the seeds, grind them up, and you get coffee."

Don Sebastián showed every indication that he didn't believe my assertion that immature okra pods collected when they're about 1.5 inches long and snipped into a stew improve its flavor and even that properly fried and eaten with fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes they can be absolutely delicious.

"Café," he repeated. "This plant provides a drink, not food."