Wanted Dead or Alive: The Artichoke?
By Dennis Linden
In late spring, retail displays are piled high with one of my most favorite of all vegetables -- the artichoke
. While artichoke production happens year-round, more than half the crop is harvested between March and May; there’s another big bump in supplies in October when the fall harvest peaks. This edible, prehistoric-looking member of the thistle family is unique in both the growing practices employed in creating two major harvests per year from each plant, as well as being probably the most location-specific of all commercial crops in the marketplace today. Plus, for a short time in its history, the artichoke was illegal!
While artichokes have Mediterranean origins, California provides 100% of the supply to the U.S. consumer. More specifically, all commercial artichoke acreage is located in and around the central coastal town of Castroville. Because of this singularity in locale, the artichoke is not only a large part of the area’s economy; the crop has also defined the region’s culture to a great extent. Each May the community celebrates the harvest with the famed Castroville Artichoke Festival. The event has been drawing artichoke aficionados by the thousands from around the globe (no pun) for more than sixty years. Here’s a great JEOPARDY factoid: The first official Artichoke Festival Queen in 1949. Who was Marilyn Monroe? And, yes Virginia, artichoke ice cream does exist!
Italian immigrants, who settled along coastal flatlands of California’s San Joaquin Valley in great numbers in the early 1900’s, planted the first artichokes brought from their homeland. Italy is still the largest artichoke producer in the world. The central coast’s foggy summers and cool, sunny winter days turned out to be the perfect habitat for artichoke production. There was a ready-market for the vegetable from the Italian population in nearby San Francisco; by 1920 the crop had burgeoned into an industry shipped nationwide. In fact, some of those early days in artichoke history resemble a bad gangster movie – except it was real life!
Ciro Terranova, a member of the New York mafia, set up a fresh produce company in the 1920s expressly for the purpose of controlling all the artichokes coming into New York from California. Why artichokes? The quick transactions necessary in the perishable produce industry were a great vehicle to launder income from Ciro’s other, more nefarious, activities – and he loved eating artichokes! Anyway, this mobster worked both ends of the distribution pipeline to gain a stranglehold. In California he “persuaded” growers to sell exclusively to his company by orchestrating midnight field raids to hack down the plants of farmers who refused to do business. At the receiving end, he terrorized New York wholesalers and distributers into buying only from him with similar extortion tactics. With this choke on the market, pardon the pun, Ciro declared himself “Artichoke King” as he enjoyed enormous profit margins. Eventually Ciro’s monopoly was exposed, causing the Mayor of New York, the famous Fiorello La Guardia, to retaliate by declaring "the sale, display, and possession" of artichokes in New York City illegal. However, the ban was on the books for only one short week as Mayor La Guardia admitted publicly that he himself had violated the new law, as the artichoke was one of his favorite vegetables, and lifted the prohibition.
This strange looking globe of edible leaves is actually the immature bud of what would be a huge, sunflower-sized purple blossom if left to mature. Artichokes are a perennial crop that growers maintain for five to ten years between replants depending on how long each plant continues to produce good yields. A spring and fall harvest cycle is artificially induced by cutting back the tops of the plants to several inches below the soil surface after each harvest to stimulate development of new shoots. This operation is called "stumping" and is timed to guarantee a harvest every six months, which is how long it takes the plants to produce another set of globes.
Interestingly, stumping is practiced only by growers in California; the rest of the world (predominantly Italy, Spain, France and Chile) also top their harvested artichoke plants, but only to several inches above the ground. This is a big controversy amongst growers. Of course, both To-Stump and Not-To-Stump proponents claim beyond a doubt that their way produces better yields as well as extends a plant’s lifespan. Vive la différence!
The artichoke can be a meal unto itself, prepared simply--just steamed, the leaves dipped in garlic-butter or mayonnaise. In a more formal setting the vegetable makes an impressive first course presentation when stuffed with all sorts of creatively delicious dipping mixtures; my favorites being a fresh-caught crab dip! The meaty base of the globe, where the leaves are attached, is a prized culinary delicacy called the heart. Hearts can be marinated in seasoned oil, chilled for slicing into salads, batter-fried or just eaten as the grand finale after the leaves have been enjoyed, slathered in the aforementioned garlicky butter, of course!
It is true that artichokes do cause a chemical change in the mouth that greatly enhances the sweetness in all foods. This chemical reaction is behind the culinary myth that wine should never be served with or right after eating the vegetable. Fear not wine lovers, there are ways around this inconvenient truth. First, be very selective about the type of wine chosen; pair artichokes with a very dry white wine that has a high acid content such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris. Conversely, stay away from red wines as the tannins they contain is what reacts with the artichoke to affect the taste buds. Another tip that helps with wine is to serve artichokes with a creamy dip laced with lemon juice, such as homemade mayonnaise or garlic-butter. These dips will coat the palate and the lemon’s pungency will counteract the chemically-induced sweetness. The garlic needs no reasoning -- it improves just about everything!
Another flavorful artichoke experience is the often-discarded short stem at the base. Do not throw this tasty morsel away! Instead, separate it from the globe, skin its stringy outer layer with a potato peeler and then pop it into the pot with the artichoke to cook until fork tender. Stems can be sliced into rounds, then incorporated into pasta dishes or chilled for use as a salad ingredient. Very occasionally Long Stem Artichokes
will show up at retail. These long-stemmed beauties are the “king globes”. The globe is usually the largest and grows up the center of plant, topping the main stem. Harvesting the king globe, along with about nine inches of the primary stem attached, is tedious process that only a few growers are willing to devote the expense to, so “stems” are a special culinary delicacy—watch for them.
A taste tip that applies mostly to the fall and winter artichoke crops are globes with a bronze blistered appearance due to exposure to a light frost. Do not pass these by for cleaner appearing globes; artichoke aficionados call these “winter-kissed” because there is tenderness to the leaves as well as a more intense, nutty flavor than cleaner globes.
More than occasionally I have met a person who has never tasted a fresh artichoke or is only familiar with the vegetable as a jarred product of the hearts in oil. While it’s only an anecdotal observation, I would have to say that most who have never enjoyed the veggie were not brought up in the western states where the artichoke is so readily available. So, in spite of all of Ciro Terranova’s efforts, the artichoke is still more of a West Coast food. Take pity on these culinary-deprived persons, invite them over for a meal of fresh artichokes and change their palates forever. However, I would not recommend serving artichoke ice cream to novices—it’s an acquired taste! Happy petaling!