Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.
A Prickly Past
The artichoke certainly has an interesting history: damned by a Greek god, used as an aphrodisiac by the Romans, and controlled by the Mafia in the Roaring 20s—and those are just a few of the stories.
These things are just plain annoying. After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual “food” out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps. Have the shrimp cocktail instead.
— Miss Piggy
From Godliness to God-Forsaken?
I think it’s safe to say that Miss Piggy is not a big fan of the artichoke. My theory is that she might be a tad bit jealous. Members of the jury, I present the following as Exhibit No. 1.
According to Aegean folklore:
Once upon a time the Greek god Zeus visited his brother Poseidon; during that visit, he saw a beautiful young maiden named Cynara on the island of Zinari. Employing every bit of charm and god-like good looks he could muster, he seduced the innocent lass.
As a result of that encounter, he was totally smitten with her; he offered to turn her into a goddess if she would become his mistress. The silly girl accepted his proposal but she soon grew homesick and returned to the land of mortals for a brief visit.
Her absence enraged Zeus and upon her return, he hurled her back to earth, transforming her into the prickly plant we know as the artichoke. (By the way, the botanical name of the globe artichoke is cynara scolymus.)
Would Miss Piggy have lived forever with Zeus in their lofty mansion in the clouds? We'll never know, and I don't personally adhere to Greek mythology, however...
Artichokes Probably Did Originate in Greece
Our real story begins in Greece. In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle had a pupil named Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.) who was a naturalist. He wrote of artichokes, describing them in great detail, stating that they were cultivated in Italy and Sicily. And oh, how the artichoke was loved by them!
- The artichoke was viewed as not only a delicacy (favored by the rich as an appetizer) but also as a curative for digestive ailments and jaundice.
- The Romans considered it an aphrodisiac and thought it would help ensure the conception of male heirs.
In 77 A.D., Pliny the Elder called the choke “one of the earth’s monstrosities.” But that didn’t dissuade him from eating them.
Wealthy Romans pickled them in a mixture of honey and vinegar so that they would be available year-round. (If male potency might be attributed to the artichoke you don't want to risk running out, right?)
Nevertheless, the artichoke was about to begin a roller coaster ride of demand and disrespect.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the artichoke fell out of favor until the 16th century when the 14-year-old Catherine de Medici (of revered Italian descent) was married to Henry II of France. The prickly little Italian treasure became regal once more.
Fast-forward 200 years. At the tender age of 25, German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang Goethe was already a literary celebrity. His first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants, was published after he returned from a 1788 tour of Italy. In this treatise, he dismissed artichokes as "thistles eaten by Italian peasants."
Up and then down again.
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Throughout history, the Italians seem to have appreciated the artichoke more than any other nation and they took this fondness with them to America.
But Then Things Got a Bit Tense (Might We Say "Choked"?)
This next part of our story begins in Italy, actually on the journey from Italy to Ellis Island. At the turn of the 20th century, Italian families began to immigrate to the United States. Many came to our shores to earn money and then repatriate. But a growing number were seeking political freedom. Between 1900 and 1915, more than 3 million Italians came to the United States.
At the same time, there was a gentleman named Andrew Molera, a landowner in the Salinas Valley of Monterey County, California. For many years, he had grown sugar beets, an easy-to-produce but low-grossing crop. Mr. Molera became aware that increasing numbers of Italian families were driving the demand for globe artichokes, and with that, he made a savvy business decision—abandon the practice of farming sugar beets and lease his land for the cultivation of artichokes. With that single change, Molera tripled his income.
But that’s not the end of the story. In fact, we’re just beginning. By the mid-1920s, the demand for artichokes was growing (no pun intended) with the large population of Italian-Americans in New York.
This fact did not escape the Mafia. Ciro (Whitey) Terranova, a fearless Sicilian-born underboss of the Morello family, purchased all of the chokes being shipped from California to New York, at a cost of $6.00 per case.
Since Terranova now had the entire import, he was in complete control of the market. He created his own produce company and sold the chokes at a 40 percent profit. But wait, there’s more!
Terranova employed henchmen to launch an attack on the California growing fields, hacking down the plants of competitors in the dead of night. This decreased the supply and drove up the demand even further. The “Artichoke Wars “ led Fiorello La Guardia, then mayor of New York City, to declare the “sale, display, and possession” of artichokes illegal.
However, this ban was short-lived. Unlike the prohibition of alcohol (which had lasted for 13 years), the prohibition of artichokes lasted for just one week. (La Guardia’s passion for the prickly produce allowed his stomach to overrule his head.)
Fun Bits of Trivia
- The choke is a member of the thistle family.
- Almost all of the U.S. crop is still grown in Monterey County, California.
- It takes about 6 months for the buds to be ready to eat.
- They can be harvested as many as 30 times in a season.
- In 1948, Marilyn Monroe was crowned queen of the Castroville Artichoke Festival. (Goddess beauty reigns).
Top 12 Globe Artichoke Producers (in 2014)
|Country||Production (in Tons)|
A woman is like an artichoke, you must work hard to get to her heart.
— Inspector Jacques Clouseau
How to Perfectly Cook an Artichoke
Artichokes can be baked, grilled, or steamed, but my favorite method is boiling. Yes, I know that seems a bit intense. Haven't we talked about the advantages of baking (encourage that wonderful caramelization), grilling (subtle smokey goodness), or steaming (save the nutrients)? But honestly, artichokes are little divas—they aren't a simple peel-and-eat veggie.
- First chop off the ends - Remove almost all of the stem end (leave an inch). Then remove the first inch or so of the top (about 1/3 of the choke). Make sure your knife is sharp and keep your fingers safe.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil - Add the prepared artichokes, cover, reduce to a simmer, and let cook for about 30 minutes. The chokes are ready when you can easily pierce the stem with a sharp knife. If your chokes are small start checking after 20 minutes of simmering. When tender, remove from the pot and set aside until cool enough to handle.
- Final prep - Slice in half from the top to the stem. Use a small spoon to scoop out the white and purple centers (all the fuzzy stuff).
Recipes in This Article
- Baked AH (artichoke hearts) (V)
- Chicken piccata with AH
- Bacon-wrapped AH with rosemary
- Creamy spinach AH pasta (V)
- Spinach artichoke egg rolls (V)
- Spinach artichoke squares (V)
- Chicken artichoke bacon pizza with a creamy garlic sauce
- Spinach-artichoke stuffed chicken breast
(V) = Vegetarian
Baked Artichoke Hearts
Anna has created the blog CrunchyCreamySweet where she presents new and traditional recipes for flavorful breakfasts, hot and filling lunches, easy dinners for any day of the week, as well as sweet and decadent desserts for a perfect finish to your meal. These baked artichoke hearts which use canned chokes are sooo good!
Chicken Piccata With Artichokes
Williams Sonoma has updated the traditional chicken dish by substituting meaty artichoke hearts for the usual lemon juice and capers. This version of chicken piccata with artichokes is rich and flavorful.
Bacon-Wrapped Artichoke Hearts With Rosemary
I know some of you might not like chokes (or at least you think that you don't). What if they're wrapped with bacon and flavored with rosemary?
Doesn't bacon make everything better?
Creamy Spinach Artichoke Pasta
Beth is the blogger behind BudgetBytes and creates a comforting meal of pasta in a creamy sauce in just 20 minutes. Her one-pan pasta method is genius. Beth uses chicken broth, but you could substitute vegetable broth to make this a vegetarian meal.
Spinach Artichoke Egg Rolls
Allyson (of DomesticSuperHero.com) was really thinking outside of the box when she created these appetizer egg rolls filled with cream cheese, spinach, and artichoke hearts. I would never have thought of putting those flavors in an egg roll, but I'm glad that she did!
Spinach Artichoke Squares
Carol is a personal chef, former newspaper columnist, recipe developer, food photographer and obsessed cookbook collector. And each week she creates something new for us in her blog FromAChefsKitchen.com. These artichoke heart squares taste just like the spinach dip all of us love.
Chicken Artichoke Bacon Pizza
Seriously, does it get any better than this? Everything you could ever want on a pizza. Creamy garlic sauce, chicken, cheese, spinach, BACON (...and we'll sneak in some artichoke hearts too). Amy is the smart cookie behind the blog MyNameIsSnickerdoodle.com and devised this yummy pizza.
Spinach-Artichoke Stuffed Chicken Breast
Karina calls herself a "self-confessed balanced foodie, sharing waistline friendly recipes that are full of flavor. Life is too short for bland and boring." Well, her spinach artichoke stuffed chicken breasts are certainly a testament to that credo.
© 2017 Linda Lum