Dietribes: Artichokes? Thistle Be Good!


• The artichoke's history dates back to antiquity. Mythology has it that when Zeus spotted Cynara, a beautiful young mortal, he transformed her into a goddess. Homesick, Cynara sneaked back into the mortal world. When Zeus discovered her deception, he turned her into an artichoke. The artichoke's scientific name, Cynara scolymus, reflects the story.

• Given the prior tale, it's unsurprising to find that the artichoke is a native of the Mediterranean, though like many of the crops we cover in Dietribes, commercial artichokes for domestic US consumption come almost exclusively from California. Artichokes can be grown as a perennials or annuals, and is a thistle tribe member of the sunflower family. And though the "vegetable" that we consume is the plant's flower bud, if allowed to bloom it transforms into a beautiful violet-blue.

• California has its artichoke pride on display with the Giant Artichoke of Castroville, and even has a restaurant adjacent that makes a host of fine artichoke dishes. And if you're touring around at the end of May, stick around for the artichoke festival, during which, in 1947, Marilyn Monroe was crowned Artichoke Queen. (The festival is rivaled only by its Italian counterpart).

• The Artichoke King's story is not as sweet. "Back in the early 1900s, Ciro Terranova earned this delicious moniker because he started his life of crime by buying cheap artichokes from California and threatening vegetable sellers in New York to buy them at a 30-40 percent markup. Too bad he died in 1938 – the Artichoke King and the Artichoke Queen would have been a perfect couple."

• Though difficult to pair with wine, artichokes contain the compound cynarin, which stimulates taste bud receptors and makes even the most boring foods delicious.

• It might be helpful to learn how to eat an artichoke before ordering one up - one Miami doctor was surprised to find they do not, in fact, come with instructions. Arturo Carvajal is suing the Houston's Restaurant chain for allowing him to eat an entire grilled artichoke, not warning him that parts of the vegetable aren't safely digestible or offering any idea as to how to consume it. (Here are, by the way, some instructions).

• And whilst in the educational mood, here are some helpful tips for finding and buying the tastiest among them: Artichokes should be firm, with a healthy green color- brownish streaks in the leaves indicate age. Hold an artichoke in your palm and make sure it is compact, not soft and loose. Two artichokes should squeak a little when rubbed together.

• It may look familiar today, but the PH Artichoke Lamp is considered a classical masterpiece. Made by Poul Henningsen more than 40 years ago, the structure is made of twelve steel arches on which 72 copper "leaves" in twelve circular rows or six blades are placed. " Because each row is staggered from the previous, all 72 leaves are able to “cover for each other”. This design allows viewing the fixture from any angle without being able to see the light source located in the center of the PH Artichoke. The original PH Artichokes were developed for a restaurant in Copenhagen called the Langelinie Pavilion, and they are still hanging there today."

• Artichokes can also be rather mighty: Artie the Artichoke was voted in as Scottsdale Community College’s official mascot in 1973, beating out “Rutabagas” and “Drovers” in a student election. Proud students then claimed that the fierce thistle-vegetable is the only mascot that can double on game day as a party dip. Actually, the Fighting Artichokes were born because in 1972, the school opted to use funds for athletic scholarships instead of replacing some decrepit portable classrooms. So to tick off the athletic department, student activists voted in the artichoke as the sports mascot. In the intervening years, it has become a point of pride. In fact, the football team is known as the Chokes, and has that nickname written on their helmets.

• Feeling particularly partial to artichokes now? Satisfy your intellectual and emotional appetite with Pablo Neruda's "Ode to an Artichoke."

• How often do you guys chow down on artichokes, and what food have you paired it with that has turned into a divine combination?

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‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.