By JEFF ROUBAL
Martinez News-Gazette Columnist
My father was born and raised near Omaha. When he moved to California, Dad became somewhat of a celebrity in his hometown. His relatives and former neighbors described “LIttle Eddie” as all grown up and living a glamorous life with beaches, freeways, movie stars, and palm trees. During the 60’s and 70’s we had a steady stream of visitors from Nebraska who wanted to experience the Golden State for themselves. Our house in Santa Cruz had six bedrooms so the welcome mat was always out.
Each group of visitors was escorted in our family station wagon to see the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury, the redwood trees at Henry Cowell State Park, the Pacific Ocean along Highway 1, the California beach in Santa Cruz, and the surfers at Steamers Lane. A highlight of the trip was the introduction to artichokes.
There was a particular fruit stand on Bay Avenue in Capitola with a reputation for having the largest, freshest artichokes available. When our station wagon stopped at the fruit stand, everyone would pile out, ogle the fruits and vegetables, and select copious amounts for purchase. In those days, you could not get fruits as large, beautiful, or fresh as these in Nebraska. You could not get fresh artichokes at all.
At home, Mother would show the ladies how to prepare these weird looking vegetables to eat. The process involved numerous pots of boiling water covering every burner on our electric stove. When ready, the artichokes were served with much pomp and ceremony.
Father, always a bit of a showman, would set the table with a charger plate at each seat. On the right of each charger plate, he would place individual cups of melted butter and mayonnaise. He would complete each setting with silverware and linen napkins. Dad would place two giant wooden bowls in the center of the table for discarded leaves. Finally, he would add large brass candlesticks and tapered candles, just for effect.
After the guests were seated, mother in the kitchen would put one large, steaming artichoke in a bowl for each person. We kids would file in to place one bowl in the center of each charger plate. Father would say grace from his seat at the head of the table then demonstrate the proper etiquette to be used when eating an artichoke.
He would remove one leaf, dip it in butter, and put the thick end in his mouth with the white side down. Pulling the leaf out, he would use his bottom teeth to scrape the white, edible part. Finally he would toss the leaf with more than a little flourish into one of the wooden bowls in the center of the table. Following this demonstration, the guests would be instructed to “dig in and enjoy” themselves.
After the artichokes were finished, dinner would follow, usually spaghetti or lasagna. Discussion during dinner would debate the merits of eating something as weird as an artichoke. Guest would invariably agree that artichokes were fun to eat and worth experiencing at least once in life but could not really be called a meal or even a snack. At the time, fresh artichokes were something unique to California so there was no chance our guests would run across one when they returned to Nebraska. Artichokes, for many years, remained a California novelty, like avocados, earthquakes, surfing, hippies, Disneyland, and Hollywood.
Although novel in America, artichokes have been around for a long time. They were described as garden plants by Homer writing in the 8th Century BC. Wild artichokes native to the Mediterranean area were relished by the Greeks and the Romans.
Aristotle called the wild artichoke a cactus, or “kaktos” in Greek. These same wild artichokes are today called cardoon and are grown in northern Africa, often used in Algerian or Tunisian couscous. Over the centuries, wild artichokes were domesticated and improved by the Arabs before being introduced to Florence, Italy in 1466 and Venice in 1480. Artichoke beds have been cultivated in Avignon, France since 1532 and enjoy a rich history in French culinary cuisine. With our mediterranean climate, California is the perfect place to grow artichokes.
Artichokes come in two varieties: large, round ‘Globe’ artichokes, and elongated, tapered ‘Violetta’ artichokes. I grow both varieties in a 3’x10’ bed beside our house. My Violetta artichokes grew from a package of seeds that our daughter bought back as a souvenir of her trip to Italy. The Globe artichokes she bought for me many years ago at a farmers market in San Francisco as live starter plants.
The cool thing about artichokes is that they take almost no care. Plants sprout in the fall and grow to six feet tall by spring. Fruit grows at the end of the branches and is easily removed with a sharp knife or pruners. You can pick them at any size before they go to flower. Once they go to flower, they’re pretty to look at but can no longer be eaten. At the beginning of summer, the plants die and dry out like corn stalks. When they completely dry out, I snap them off at the ground and throw them in the green waste bin. New plants sprout from the roots again in the fall.
A couple of years ago we went to the Artichoke Festival in Castroville. We saw art made out of artichokes, celebrity chefs cooking artichokes, live entertainment and boxes of artichokes for sale. We brought home a box of artichokes that had been picked only minutes earlier. They were the most delicious I have ever eaten.
At the Artichoke Festival, we saw grilled artichokes, deep fried artichokes, artichoke burritos, artichoke crab cakes, artichoke ice cream, artichoke cheesecake, and artichoke cupcakes. My favorite way to eat artichokes is the same way that my family served them — boiled in salted water until they’re tender. We eat them with melted butter if they’re served hot or mayonnaise if they’re served cold.
Artichokes are good for us too. A medium one has 60 calories, 4 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber, and only 0.2 grams of fat. Artichokes also have vitamin A, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B-12.
California artichokes are available year-round, peak season is March through May and again in October. Next time you are eating your artichoke, think of Aristotle and Homer and all the Greeks and Romans who have enjoyed them for 3,000 years before you. Serve them with candles and a flourish!