Every time I eat a whole, fresh artichoke I wonder two things:
1) Who was the first person to take the time to figure out that if you cook this giant thistle bud and then remove all the stuff that’s still completely inedible, at the very center, there are a few ounces—not more than a few bites worth—of flesh that’s not just edible, but really tasty? (which frequently leads to questions 1a: how hungry would you have to be? and 1b: what else might that person have attempted to cook and eat?) and
2) How often do artichokes inspire that question? Like, in what percentage of instances where globe artichokes are prepared and consumed with at least some of their inedible parts intact do they cause people to wonder about their origins? Is it over 50%? Could it be as high as 70%? How many times, over how many different artichokes, has some version of the same conversation about the wonder and mystery of the artichoke’s discovery taken place?
Neither of which are answerable. The most we can know about the first person (or persons) who ate artichokes is that they probably lived in North Africa, where the giant thistles are still found in their wild form and where they acquired the Arabic name “al kharshuf,” which all the European names were derived from. But despite years and years of artichoke eating, I had never bothered to even find out that much because it’s not really a need to know kind of wonder that artichokes inspire. It’s more that they activate a sense of awe. Wonderment, I guess.
I mean, how weird and wonderful is it that this thorny armadillo of a vegetable exists? That there’s just a tiny piece of edible flesh clinging to each of the tough, pointy leaves and once you remove all of them and the bristly “choke,” you uncover this amazing savory-sweet heart that tastes completely unlike anything else in the world (except, apparently, the related cardoon I’ve never encountered)? If you read about it in a poem, you’d probably think it was a totally clumsy, ham-handed metaphor, too obvious by half. How literally incredible that some plant just happened to evolve that way.
Nonetheless, I decided to put question #1 to one of those crazy new services that charge you a fee to
google shit for you, you lazy git text you answers to random questions. I asked kgb “Who was the first person to eat an artichoke?” at 5:57 pm. Here’s the exchange that followed:
Thanks and sit tight. kgb is researching your answer & will send it shortly ($.99/answer). Msg&Data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help or STOP to cancel.
Received: Mon Feb 15, 5:58 pm
Thanks for using kgb_Do you have any questions for us? We would love to answer it. Ask us! 24/7. No charge. kgb_team
Received: Mon Feb 15, 5:59 pm
Never received answer to question: who was the first person to eat an artichoke?
Sent: Mon Feb 15, 6:02 pm
Sorry for the delay. Pliny the Elder observed in 77 A.D. that Romans consumed artichokes. The name of the person to try it is unknown. No charge for this one.
Received: Mon Feb 15, 6:10 pm
So at least they don’t charge you if they can’t answer, and apologize if they get a non-answer to you in less time than it would take a sumo wrestler to stomp your ass. (I suppose that’s non-endorsing with faint praise?) ChaCha, “ur mobile BFF,” also basically threw in the towel:
The origin of artichokes is unknown, they are said to have come from the Maghreb (North Africa), so who knows who ate one first! Link
That “so” weirdly implies a causal connection between the fact that they’re from North Africa and the fact that no one knows who ate one first which seems a bit “Maghreb, land of mystery about which no historical facts can be ascertained!” If they were said to come from Sweden, would that also explain why we don’t know who ate one first? Another of our BFFs at ChaCha borrows a line from Greek mythology:
Cynara was a woman whom Zeus fell in love with and she betrayed him and he turned her into an artichoke because she ate them. Link
The myth of Cynara actually has a neat legacy in the names of one of the molecules that give artichokes their unique capacity for taste perversion—cynarin, which I’ll be writing more about in the next artichoke entry—and the liqueur made from artichokes—Cynar. But it doesn’t get us any closer to an answer to the questions.
I think a lot of what makes artichokes so intriguing is the fact that you have to be taught how to eat them, or initiated into what seems like a secret order of artichoke eaters. They’re complicated and fussy, the vegetal antithesis of the apple, whose starring role in so many sacred and secular stories seems fundamentally tied to how easy and natural the act of biting into a raw apple is. Surely Eve could have withstood the temptations of an artichoke. Surely Snow White would have figured out her disguised stepmother was up to no good by the time she was done with all that cleaning and trimming and cooking. You simply could not stumble on an artichoke in the wild and intuit how to consume it. And that’s not just because it has to be cooked: how much easier is it to figure out what to do with a potato or a winter squash?
My mom was the one who taught me how to prepare and eat artichokes. On the rare occasions when they happened to be on sale at the grocery store, she would buy just one. We never ate them with or in a meal, always by themselves, often on the same day that we had gone shopping. I never saw other people eating them—not at restaurants or on television or at friends’ houses. I don’t even remember ever seeing my dad eat one. So artichokes always seemed like this special secret vegetable that only my mom knew what to do with.
However, wikipedia claims that what she always did with them: cut off the stem and the top, trim the leaves, steam until tender, and eat with butter is the way they are “most frequently prepared” in the U.S. I kind of doubt that in terms of the total volume of artichoke consumed; most artichokes eaten in America are probably consumed in the form of a creamy dip with a 90% chance of including spinach. But that kind of dip is almost always made with artichokes that have been frozen or preserved in brine, even by home cooks and Alton Brown. If you’ve ever had fresh artichoke, you already know why: they are one of the great exceptions to the general rule that everything savory is better with cheese and/or garlic. Fresh artichokes are so good by themselves, all you really need to do is steam them and eat them. So this won’t seem like much of a recipe, but in case your mom never showed you how, instructions and pictures after the jump:
Recipe: Whole Artichokes with butter (from my mom)
- artichoke(s)—one per person unless you want to share, one artichoke actually makes a sort of romantic appetizer for two
- 1-2 t. butter per artichoke (or sub a vegan fat, if you like)
1. Set some salted water to boil in a large stock pot (or a smaller pot if you’re only cooking 1 artichoke). You can submerge the artichokes entirely, or just set them into 1-2” of water, or put them atop a steaming apparatus. I usually do the latter, treating them basically like broccoli so I don’t have to drain them afterwards.
2. Cut off the top 1-1 1/2” of the artichoke (see above) and the stem. Using kitchen sheers, snip any remaining leaf tips off. Peel the stem.
3. Place the artichokes and stems in the pot and boil/steam until you can pierce the bottom of the artichoke with a fork easily, about 25-30 minutes. If you care about color, don’t cover the pot. As the cell walls break down in the cooking process, the acids that are normally separated from the chlorophyll combine with them to create theophylline, so they lose their bright green color. If you leave the pot uncovered, much of the acid will evaporate with the steam. You may need to add more water midway through the cooking process.
Or you can just microwave them. This is actually what my mom usually did—she’d put one in a bowl with a few tablespoons of water, cover it with plastic wrap with a few holes poked in it to let the steam escape, and microwave it for about 7 minutes, checking every couple of minutes to see if it was done. As with all vegetable steaming, the exact time may require some tweaking for your particular microwave, but it should give results that are virtually indistinguishable from stovetop cooking.
4. Melt butter (you could add some lemon juice or minced raw or roasted garlic if you really wanted to, but I prefer just the butter)
5. To eat: pull the leaves away one by one, starting at the bottom and working your way towards the middle. Dip each leaf in the butter and bite off the bit of flesh at the end.
As you work your way inside the bulb, the leaves will get smaller and thinner, and a greater portion of each one will be edible. They will come to resemble flower petals more than leaves. And eventually, you’ll get to the “choke,” which would have been the purple bloom.
6. Scrape away the choke and drizzle the little disk of meaty flesh with any butter you have left. This is the heart; it demands to be savored.
And then everything will be sort of sweet for a while, even water. Which is a cool effect of the cynarin I’ll explain on Wednesday.