Friday, June 01, 2007

THE ARTICHOKE: An Improbable Vegetable

The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (5/22/07)

During the Middle Ages, a gang of Vikings raided Scotland in the dead of night. Trying silence, they landed bare-footed but hadn’t reckoned on the Scotch thistles. Their howls awakened the sleeping Highlanders who drove them back into the sea.

The Scotch thistle became the symbol of Scotland and the emblem of the fabled Highland infantry regiment, the Black Watch, whose motto is Nemo me impune lacessit (No one touches me with impunity.) However, nowadays the Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium), formerly Scotland’s early warning system, has been benched as an invasive species and even sent to the showers as the U.S. Forest Service’s Weed of the Week.

Another famous thistle, the globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus), hails from softer Mediterranean climes. Not to be confused with the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) or the Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis), whose edible parts are tubers, the edible part of the globe artichoke is its flower bud, a thistle’s flower bud certainly being an improbable vegetable.

Legend has it that the first artichoke was Cynara, Zeus’ beautiful, young earthling mistress with whom he dallied when his wife, Hera, was out of town. When Cynara wanted to return to her mother on earth, Zeus, miffed at the rejection, hurled her back to earth, turning her into the first artichoke. As Cynara is botanical Latin for artichoke so the Arabic al΄qarshuf is the root of English word. Arabic Moors introduced the artichoke to Spain where monks developed it in their monastery gardens.

During the Renaissance, the wives and mistresses of dottled aristocrats weren’t allowed to eat artichokes because they were considered aphrodisiacs. Apparently, they feared their sex-crazed young wives and mistresses would dump them, taking up with younger bucks. Marilyn Monroe was California’s first Artichoke Queen. The oxymoron of a sexy thistle is far cry from “No one touches me with impunity.”

Historically, artichokes can be traced to the 4th century B.C. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery had a recipe entitled “To Make Hartichoak Pie.” Early in the 20th century Fannie Farmer introduced artichokes to America in her cookbook’s ninth edition.

Anyone who grows tomatoes knows the drill. With a 90 day cycle from transplant to fruition, the best thing to do, unless the gardener’s a green house horticultural aristocrat, is to start them indoors, like early, seeding two or three seeds ½ inch deep in little discs or pots of sterilized potting soil. Water well and place on a window sill. After the first green appears, fertilize them with a small amount of water-soluble fertilizer. Transplant them to a larger container after the first real leaves appear, and then transplant them outside either after the last frost or before within Walls O’Water. Purchasing an artichoke plant from a nursery is lot easier. However, seeding offers the possibility of exotic varieties, such as, the Italian Carciofo Violetto di Chioggia, a violet tinged artichoke without thorns.

As perennials, artichokes can winter, but as Mediterraneans, four or five inches of mulch, leaves, pine needles, or straw are required. Even then survival is chancy. They grow well in containers, saving water.

Artichoke buds in bloom adorn a garden with intense purple, five inch blossoms. Stems grow nearly three feet high with long spiny leaves.

Eating artichokes is akin to eating corn on the cob, messy. Rinse and boil them in water with a squirt of olive oil and pinch of salt for 40 to 50 minutes. Crushed garlic cloves, crushed oregano leaves, or lemon slices may be added to the water. When the scales are easily pulled off, drain upside down, and serve with melted butter. The gastronomical prize is the crown, a concave disc at the base of the scales. First, use the lower choppers to scrape off and eat the scales’ fleshy base. Remove the inner, undeveloped flower and savor the crown. A Cream of Tomato, Avocado, Basil, and Artichoke Crown Soup recipe is blogged at

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German poet and master of nearly everything else, after his tour of Italy, wrote, “Only peasants eat artichokes.” In America, Thomas Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy” relishes corn on the cob and artichokes. Comme il faut.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2007

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