"Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke"
--Bette Davis, as Margo Channing in All About Eve

"Eating an artichoke is like getting to know someone really well."
--Willi Hastings

"When they be almost rype they must be suden tender in the broth of befe, and after eate them at dyner, they both increase nature, and doth provoke a man to veneryous [sexual] actes."
--Dr. Andrew Boorde, A Compendiuous Regyment, or a Dyrectory of Healthe

The tender-
hearted artichoke
dressed in its armor,
build its modest cupola
and stood
a lamina of leaves.
Around it,
maddened vegetables,
ruffling their leaves,
creepers, cattails,
bulbs and tubers to astound;
beneath the ground
the red-whiskered carrot;
above, the grapevine
dried its runners,
bearers of the wine;
the cabbage
preened itself,
arranging its flounces;
perfumed the world,
while the gentle
stood proudly in the garden,
clad in armor
to a pomegranate
And then one day,
with all the other artichokes
in willow baskets,
our artichoke
set out to market
to realize its dream;
life as a soldier.
Amid the ranks
never was it so martial
as in the fair,
among the greens
the field
of artichokes;
close formations,
shouted commands,
and the detonation
of a falling crate.
here comes
with her shopping basket.
she selects
our artichoke,
examines it, holds it to
the light as if it were an egg;
she buys it,
she drops it
in a shopping bag
that holds a pair of shoes,
a cabbage head, and one
of vinegar.
Once home
and in the kitchen
she drowns it in a pot.
And thus ends
in peace
the saga
of the armored vegetable
we call the artichoke,
leaf by leaf
we unsheathe
its delights
and eat
the peaceable flesh
of its green heart.
--Pablo Neruda's "Ode to an Artichoke," translated by M.S. Peden from "Oda a la Alcachofa"

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(Cynara scolymus)

The name artichoke comes from the Arabic al' quarshuf. The Latin name cynara has survived in the Italian artichoke liqueur Cynar, a fairly bitter and hair raising aperitif.

The artichoke is a thistle, native to the Mediterranean region. It probably began life as the thistle known as cardoon (still sold in Italy and in North African souqs), then it was cultivated by Romans, not only for their stalks (cardui), but also for their flower receptacles (sponduli)...which grew into today's handsome globes.

Hesiod first mentions the plant, but it was Pliny who complained about its high price--"we even turn the monstrosities of the earth to the purposes of gluttony"-- and ironically commented on the fact that thistles, of all things, would be forbidden to the lower classes. It was eaten with pleasure by both ancient Greeks and Romans.

When Catherine de Medici left Florence in the 16th century to become Henry II's Queen of France, she took her own cooks--and artichokes--with her, thus beginning the style of cooking that became known as French haute cuisine. Word has it that artichoke heart fritters were one of her great weaknesses.... To this day, the fields of France--and Brittany in particular--are resplendent with these odd looking plants that would feel at home on the pages of Dr. Seuss books.

The Dutch introduced artichokes to England--and they were growing in Henry VIII's garden at Newhall in 1530, perhaps because of their reputation as an aphrodisiac.

Artichokes were first introduced to America by French colonists who settled in Louisiana in the early 1700s--but they didn't catch on. Then Thomas Jefferson brought artichokes back to Monticello from Italy--but they still didn't catch on. Only at the beginning of the 20th century, when Italian immigrants settled around Half Moon Bay on the California coast and planted a few hundred acres, did artichokes come into their own as a commercial success.

Only recently have scientists been able to discover why food tastes sweet after eating an artichoke: two elements in its chemical make up are not water soluble; these alter the taste buds of the tongue so that nonsweet substances appear to have been sweetened. Thus they are being considered as a possible alternative to sugar.

Watch out for baby artichokes in the spring. These egg-size beauties are so tender, they can be eaten whole when well cooked.