Artichoke History, Artichoke Selection and Storage, and Artichoke Recipes
by Diana Viola
With a tender heart
Dressed up like a warrior,
Standing at attention, it built
A small helmet....
Pablo Neruda, Ode To The Artichoke
Pity the poor artichoke. The beautiful, silver-leafed artichoke never gets to preen and show its lavender flower. We love to eat artichokes too much to let them bloom, but they are, in fact, members of the thistle family. Neruda equates the appearance of the artichoke to a helmet, and though it is a rather brusque description of the artichoke, what we generally see is the closed protective petals, not the flower. When it comes to artichokes we are after helmets, not flowers.
A unique vegetable, the artichoke contains within its protective, prickly petals both the heart and that which we call the choke (and it CAN choke you). The choke is actually the multiple-seeded beginning of the lavender-blue thistle. The leaves of the artichoke are large and take up a lot of space in a garden. But each artichoke plant renders three different sized edible artichokes. There are the large ones on the main stem, many medium sized ones growing around it and those lovely small artichokes that grow around the plant's base. And in the right climate (artichokes do have their demands) the artichoke is a perennial plant.
The artichoke is not related to the Jerusalem artichoke which is a tuber. It is closely related, however, to the cardoon and there is general confusion about which plant developed from the other.
The History of the Artichoke in The U.S.: The Artichoke in Memory, in Mayhem, in the Movies, and Meanwhile Back at the Ranch....
The Artichoke in Memory
The French are credited with bringing the first artichokes to the U.S., but during the early 1900's, great waves of Italian immigrants arrived in the United States and the true history of the artichoke began. They found no artichokes waiting for them. Primarily of Neapolitan and Sicilian heritage, they remembered the artichokes of their native soil with longing. Pushing westward to California, they discovered a climate conducive to growing artichokes and the real cultivation of the artichoke would begin. A handful of these artichoke-deprived Italian-Americans in the coastal city of Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County, began the cultivation of artichokes. By the 1920's artichokes and more artichokes were being shipped to the east coast. Soon Half Moon Bay billed itself as the artichoke capital of the world. Though more artichokes were being grown in France and Italy, their hyperbole was accepted by eager Italian-Americans in the east.
In 1920, half the population of the United States lived in cities. Railroads crossed the country and iceboxes were available. The proliferation of apartment buildings was partly responsible for the rise of shipping vegetables. Apartment dwellers had no root cellars in which to store crops for the winter; they had no room for canning. More than their country cousins, apartment dwellers needed fresh food.
The Artichoke in Mayhem - The Mafia Claims the Artichoke
Sought by eager Italian-Americans living in the cold climate of New York City, unfavorable for growing artichokes, it would not take genius to see that money could be made by capturing the market. In history this was the era of gangsters, and the artichoke would be monopolized by one of the underworld kings, one Ciro Terranova. At that time, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was trying to get both gangsters and pushcarts off the streets of New York. He had opened the wholesale market that would become the center of New York's food supply, and LaGuardia did not want gangsters dominating any produce, least of all the artichoke. In 1935, amid much pomp, he went to the wholesale market, declared "a serious and threatening emergency," and banned the sale of artichokes, the display of artichokes, even the mere possession of artichokes. Yea, there was not a single artichoke in New York City. Whether it was because the price dropped, defeating the mafia, or because LaGuardia himself was unable to accept life with the artichoke thistle, within the year history marched on, and La Guardia, New York's "Little Flower" reinstated artichokes. New York's 'Little Italy' could smile again.
The Artichoke in Movies: Marilyn Monroe and the Artichoke
So exotic were artichokes, that in one short movie of "The Three Stooges," Curly calls an artichoke a smarty-choke, a party-smoke, an okey-doke, a feathered pineapple, and a barbed-wire pickle.
In the first season of the very popular television series, "The Untouchables" one show celebrated our gangster friend, Ciro Terranova, in an episode entitled "The Artichoke King." Could history lie? Could Eliot Ness not confront the artichoke gangsters?
More recently comes the rather poignant quote from the charming film, "Amelie" "At least you'll never be a vegetable - even artichokes have hearts."
Perhaps the most significant moment of artichokes and movies occurred in 1947 at the Artichoke Festival in Castroville, California. A young woman was crowned "Miss California Artichoke Queen." This artichoke crown gave a decided boost to the beginning career of a Miss Norma Jean Baker who would, of course, become the supernova of movie stars, Marilyn Monroe. We want to know if Miss Monroe ate artichokes. Was that the secret behind her appeal? Quick, to the kitchen - start cooking those artichokes.
Meanwhile - Back at the Ranch: the Artichoke Establishes Itself
While New York dealt with Mafia history, Californians found it easier to get artichokes. On the west coast, artichokes became a food for snobs, for the cognoscenti. In an essay on the caste system of vegetables, in which cabbage and turnips were scorned, MFK Fisher saw the artichoke as the chosen vegetable of status seekers.
History of the Artichoke in Europe and the Middle East
To unravel the threads of history, we always look at language.The English word artichoke derives from the Italian carciofi. Carciofi in turn may derive from the Arabic al-haršuf (frequently spelled al-qarshuf). The Spanish word alcarchofa probably evolved, as many Spanish words did, from the Arabic aswell. This would indicate that the artichoke began in the Middle East and spread throughout the favorable climate of the Mediterranean especially in Andalusia and Sicily under Arab domination. In Liguria, the artichoke is called cocali, which translates as pine cone.
Once, in ancient history, considered quite exotic, the many-leafed artichoke was more popular as inspiration for the ornamentation on Gothic buildings than as an edible vegetable.
How long humans beings have eaten artichokes is unknown as recorded history leaves little data, however that early writer, Pliny the Elder, observed In 77 A.D., that his fellow Romans eagerly consumed artichokes and commented with distaste that "we turn into a corrupt feast the earth’s monstrosities, those which even the animals instinctively avoid.” Animals would have avoided the artichoke since they would not have been able to remove the prickly leaves and the potentially blooming thistle known as the choke. Rather than admire human ingenuity, Pliny sneered.
Artichokes were eaten in Venice (a major trading port with the Arab world) and in Florence. It was that great voyager, Catherine de Medici, who changed the culinary history of France and brought the artichoke among many other foods to France. It was chronicled of Catherine that "The Queen Mother ate so much she thought she would die, and was very ill with diarrhoea. They said it was from eating too many artichoke bottoms and the combs and kidney of cockerels, of which she was very fond." We suspect that if this is an accurate description, it may have been the combs and kideneys, not the artichokes that made the good Catherine fall ill.
While France took the artichoke to its heart, not all travelers were as keen as Catherine de Medici. The German writer, Goethe, was shocked by the artichoke and by its popularity among the peasants of Italy. Whether he was scorning the peasants or the artichoke - or both - he wrote in his informative work Travels Through Italy, "the peasants eat thistles." Obviously, Goethe did not deign to try the artichoke and thus missed one of the world's great tastes. Compare this to a letter written home by the French writer, Stendhal, in which he raved about the Roman artichokes. "Everything here falls like manna. Twelve hundred artichokes cost 21 sous...."
Artichokes in Eden - Rome, Provence and the Artichoke
Rome and the Mammole Artichokes
Today all of Italy eats artichokes, but Rome and artichokes are an indissoluble union. Artichokes once grew in the gardens around the Trevi fountain. To the Romans, artichokes are the harbingers of spring and to eat a Roman artichoke is to know what Eden must have been like. In the great open-air market, the Campo dei Fiori, artichoke vendors trim artichokes under well-practised knives, trimming and plucking leaves with dazzling expertise.
The prize artichoke of the Lazio and Rome region is the mammola. It is a rotund artichoke, known for its softness, and it is this artichoke that is used for the very famous dish Carciofi all Giudea (Artichokes in the Jewish Style). This dish was developed in the medieval ages by the Jews living in Trastevere, then the Jewish ghetto. This writer, having eaten this dish with great zest in Italy, attempted to make it in the US with the artichokes available here. The dish did not succeed as one needs the soft mammola. Some gourmets rank the mammola as the finest artichoke in the world. The Romans most appreciate artichokes cooked with mint and it was once traditional for Romans to head into the hills surrounding Rome where they ate artichokes cooked in coals. For this dish, no outer leaves were removed from the artichokes and they were roasted on a fire made of vine branches.
Provence and The Artichaut Violette
After Catherine de Medici made one of the great border-crossings in culinary history and introduced what was then an exotic novelty, the French discovered the artichoke. Today artichokes are a ubiquitous vegetable in Provence where the climate suits their cultivation. The region grows a wide variety of artichokes, but the artichaut violette, also called poivrade, with leaves that blush in violet hue, is the most delicate of all artichokes. It is picked before the choke forms and is so tender that it can be finely sliced and eaten uncooked. Some people rate this as the finest of the artichokes. The most classic method of preparation of artichokes is Artichaut barigoule. The barigoule is a firm-fleshed, dense and meaty mushroom that has a slightly fruity flavor and marries well with the tiny artichoke. To the citizens of Provence, the quality of live oil is important and olive oil is the soul mate of the artichoke.
The Artichoke around Italy
Though Rome and the artichoke are a passionate couple, artichokes abound throughout Italy and in many varieties. The dark green, thorny variety of Sardinia is a major crop. In Sicily where artichoke life may have begun, they are still picked wild in fields. Many varieties are popular in Tuscany, though the Tuscans seem to have a yen for the small violette.
Selecting and Storing Artichokes
When it comes to artichokes we like to think in the Italian manner - fresh, fresh, fresh. Those brownish leaves and those light-weight artichokes that you may see should be shunned, sneered at, snubbed. You want artichokes with deep green leaves which are dense together forming Neruda's helmet. , you want them to be firm and weighty. As an artichoke loses water, it loses its weight.
The best thing you can do with artichokes is to buy them when you plan to cook them. You can, however, store them for one or two days in the refrigerator, but remember that they will be losing their density as they sit in your refrigerator. They will keep for up to a week in a plastic bag, but ware never as good as when they are prepared immediately. Julia Child recommends slicing 1/2 inch off the stems and wrapping the artichokes in slightly damp paper towels.
Nutrition in Artichokes:
What a gift to the health-conscious and especially to dieters. If using for weight loss, be careful with the amount of oil you use. Artichokes are free of fat, saturated fat, and free of cholesterol. The lovely artichoke is low in sodium, and low in calories. They area good source of fiber, vitamin C, folate and magnesium. Think artichoke!
But don't think of wine when you think of artichokes. The artichoke is not a compatible friend of wine. Artichokes contain a phenolic called cynarin which affects foods by making them taste sweet. It was James Beard who first commented that this sweetness did not agree with wine. If you insist on the glass of wine to accompany an artichoke, don't use your finest, most expensive wine as the taste will be spoiled.
Serving Size :
Amount Per Serving
itsy-bity calories and none from fat
% Daily Value *Total Fat 0g 0 % Saturated Fat 0g 0 %
Cholesterol 0mg 0 %
Sodium 70mg 3 %
Total Carbohydrates 6g 2 %
Dietary Fiber 3g 12 %
Vitamin A 2 %
Vitamin C 10 %
Calcium 2 %
Iron 2 %
Potassium 180mg 5 %
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.
Ode to the Artichoke
by Pablo Neruda
With a tender heart
Dressed up like a warrior,
Standing at attention, it built
A small helmet
Under its scales
By its side
The crazy vegetables
Their tendrils and leaf-crowns,
In the sub-soil
With its red mustaches
Hung out to dry its branches
Through which the wine will rise,
To trying on skirts,
To perfuming the world,
And the sweet
There in the garden,
Dressed like a warrior,
Like a proud
And one day
Side by side
In big wicker baskets
Walking through the market
To realize their dream
The artichoke army
Never was it so military
Like on parade.
In their white shirts
Among the vegetables
Of the artichokes
Lines in close order
And the bang
Of a falling box.
With her basket
She's not afraid of it.
She examines it, she observes it
Up against the light like it was an egg,
She buys it,
She mixes it up
In her handbag
With a pair of shoes
With a cabbage head and a
She enters the kitchen
And submerges it in a pot.
Of the armed vegetable
Which is called an artichoke,
Scale by scale,
We strip off
The peaceful mush
Of its green heart.
Boorstin, Daniel J., The Americans: The Democratic Experience, Vintage Books, New York
Child, Julia, The Way to Cook, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
David, Elizabeth, French Provincial Cooking, Penguin Books Ltd., London
David, Elizabeth, Italian Food, Penguin Books Ltd., London
Fisher, M. F. K., The Art of Eating: The Collected Gastronomical Works of M. F. K. Fisher. The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York
McGee, Harold, On Food and Cooking, Scribner, New York
Root, Waverly. The Food of Italy.
Random House. New York.
Root, Waverly, The Food of France Random House, New York
Touissaint-Samat, Maguelonne, History of Food. Blackwell Publishers, Limited