When in classical mythology Odysseus discovered the lotus-eaters and described them as "a people living a life of languorous forgetfulness," he could have been describing okra lovers after Sunday dinner of field peas, fried chicken, cornbread and, of course, fried okra.

Okra is in no way related to the fruit of the legendary lotus tree, nor has okra any mind-distorting properties, unless you count the fact that the plant's fuzzy leaves will give you a maddening (though harmless) itch if you pick okra in a short-sleeved shirt.

Okra lovers are ardent about the vegetable that gets such "bad press." Feed them okra prepared any way and they take on a positively beatific aura. If we could do a consumption comparison on a lotus-to-okra pod basis, the smart money would be on the okra-eaters. Put an okra-eater in front of a dish of crispy fried okra, and you will see some EATING -- almost to a state of languorous forgetfulness.

Lots of unfortunate folks have never heard of, much less eaten, okra. "What is an okra?" they will ask an okra-eater. The response is likely to be both terse ("It is okra, not an okra."), and idyllic ("But it is wonderful," etc., etc., etc.).

Okra is contradictory stuff. There is no such thing as a middle-of-the road opinion about okra. You either love it, or hate it as much as a kid hates tapioca. "It's slimy and sticky and has round seeds in it," okra-haters will say, just like a child balking at the tapioca.

What is okra, anyway, and what about the "bad press?" Okra is a plant that looks something like a hollyhock and has hibiscus-like blossoms. It produces delectable, edible pods.

But listen to a dictionary's description: "A malvaceous shrub bearing beaked, mucilaginous pods."

Now that's bad press. Who would be interested in cooking, much less eating, a gluey pod? Okra-eaters, that's who, because they know the description is only technically accurate. They know that okra is the perfect thickener for soups, stews and pungent gumbo.

It is true that okra pods are lightly fuzzy outside, slippery inside and contain a slick juice. Anything so contradictory in character is likely to confuse the public; one does not look at an okra-pod and say, "that looks delicious," as you might when eyeing a strawberry. (Unless, of course, you are a seasoned okra-eater.)

But then, oysters don't look so hot, either, and we all know how good they are. So okra, like oysters, has a few things to overcome.

An okra plant likes hot sun and plenty of it. It grows to five feet or more, and produces from summer to fall. If you put on a long-sleeved shirt and long pants and take a basket and sharp knife to the okra patch and faithfully cut the okra, it will be prolific.

Actually, there are new varieties (including dwarf varieties) that are far less fuzzy than the old-time plants. Choose spined pods or spineless ("spineless okra" -- there's that character assassination again). Okra is best when picked young, when the pods are 1 1/2-2 inches long. However, the newer varieties feature larger pods that remain very tender.

While okra can be used in soups, stews and casseroles, and is delicious steamed, saute'ed or fried, it is best fresh, though frozen okra is very good. It also is available canned, but okra-eaters debate the merits of that type. Buy it fresh when you can. Wash it, snip the ends -- then cook it whole or sliced, according to your recipe. To reduce the sticky quality, just rinse the okra with cold water after paring, and let it drain in the colander.

For years, because okra was an unusual vegetable favoring a hot climate, it was confined to regional cooking, most notably creole, in Louisiana. But okra has always been loved and cultivated throughout the South. Its popularity has increased and is readily available, in season, throughout the country. A simple, regional way of cooking okra is to spread a layer of the pods on top of another vegetable that is simmering -- pole beans, corn, field peas and the like. This steams or boils the okra.

There is a saying in the South ("bad press" again) that an unattractive person is "as dull -- or plain -- as boiled okra." Bad press aside, okra is nutritious and versatile. Try slicing a few pods and saute'ing the okra with minced shallots in butter until the okra is tender. Add a squirt of lemon juice, salt and pepper and enjoy. If you have a deep-fat cooker, try cooking okra. Roll the sliced okra in cornmeal and put it in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes. Then fry it until golden and crisp. Or dip small, whole pods in batter and fry them the same way; serve hot with cocktails. Then launch bravely into gumbo and chicken stew with okra, and on and on.

If you like it, you're hooked. Ever after you will scout supermarkets, haunt farmers' markets and perhaps even plant your own -- all in the quest for tender okra pods. EASY OKRA AND SHRIMP

(2 servings)

3 to 4 slices bacon

1 small onion, chopped

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

3 to 4 tomatoes, peeled and chopped

Chicken stock as needed

1 cup okra, sliced

As many raw, peeled shrimp as you like -- at least a dozen

Salt and pepper to taste

Fry bacon and drain on paper towels. Over moderate to low heat, saute' onion and pepper in bacon drippings until vegetables are soft. Add garlic and tomatoes, stirring constantly. Add a little chicken broth if needed to prevent sticking. Add okra and more broth as needed. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until okra is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Before serving, add shrimp and let cook just until shrimp are pink and tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Season to taste and serve hot in soup plates. Crumble bacon on top. Good with cornbread or crusty french bread. ONE-POT GUMBO

(4 servings)

2 1/2- to 3-pound broiler/fryer, cut up

1 cup flour

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

4 cups okra, sliced

2 cups tomatoes, approximately

6 cups boiling water

Salt and pepper to taste

Thyme leaves, hot pepper sauce, garlic to taste (optional)

Shake chicken pieces in a paper bag with flour. In an enamel soup pot, (iron darkens okra) fry chicken pieces in hot oil over moderate heat. When chicken is browned, add onion and okra and cook 5 to 10 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking. Spoon off excess oil, if any, and add tomatoes and boiling water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, add seasonings and let simmer until chicken is tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Add tomatoes or water as needed for desired consistency. Serve hot in soup plates. Good with a dollop of steamed rice on top. OKRA FRITTERS

(4 servings)

1 cup okra, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon milk (if needed)

1/2 cup oil

Wash and drain okra. Cut off and discard ends. Slice okra as thin as a dime. Place okra slices in bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper and flour. Stir to coat slices. With back of spoon or hands, press okra to release juice, which will mix with flour to bind the mixture. If needed, add the milk. Drop the mixture by tablespoons in hot fat and fry over medium high heat until lightly browned. Turn fritters often to prevent burning. Drain on paper towel. Serve hot. FRIED OKRA

(2 to 4 servings)

1 pound fresh okra, cut in rounds

1 1/2 cups cornmeal or cracker meal

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup oil

Wash okra and drain in colander. Cut off and discard ends of okra pods. Cut okra in rounds and shake with cornmeal and salt and pepper in a brown paper bag. When okra is well coated with meal, drop it into hot oil in skillet, and fry until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot. SUCCOTASH

(4 to 6 servings)

1/2 cup salt pork or bacon, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

1 cup fresh corn

1 cup fresh lima beans or butter beans

1 1/2 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped

1 cup fresh okra, in 1/2-inch slices

Salt and pepper to taste

In saucepan over medium heat, fry salt pork or bacon until slightly crisp. Add about 1/2 inch of water (enough to cover bottom of saucepan) and allow mixture to simmer. Stir, raise heat and bring mixture to a boil. Lower heat, add vegetables and cook until vegetables are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. OKRA SALAD

(4 servings)

2 pounds young okra, about 2 inches long

Salt to taste

2 to 3 shallots, minced

Wash okra and cut off stem ends. Boil okra in salted water until tender-crisp, about 15 to 20 minutes. Check okra, being careful not to overcook it. Drain and chill thoroughly. To serve, sprinkle with minced shallots and top with french dressing. FRENCH DRESSING

(Makes 1 pint)

1/2 cup vinegar (wine, cider or tarragon)

1 1/2 cups olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Paprika to taste

Celery salt to taste

Into a pint jar, pour vinegar and olive oil. Add salt, pepper, paprika and celery salt. Shake. Refrigerate. Herbs such as thyme or marjoram may also be added. Shake well before serving.