Celebrating the Many Virtues of Globe Artichokes

By Shirley Barker
Friday July 20, 2007

When I was young and newly minted and released into the world at large, I rented a room, board included, from an elderly woman. Our disparate reading matter at the breakfast table was united under the banner of the Times: the obituaries for her, the engagements for me. 

Now it is quite the reverse. I was reminded of this when I read a sentence in a recent New York Times obituary of anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas, whose research found that group behavior governs the personal, even to the extent of the use of cutlery when one dines alone. 

This however is not true in my household. Take salad, for starters. There is something in its flavor that is greatly enhanced when lettuce is eaten with the fingers. Try eating a radish with a knife and fork! As for globe artichokes, surely no utensil exists that can eclipse the dexterity required for its leaves, the removing, the dipping, and finally the pressing of each tender leaf against teeth. 

This is not the only reason why I adore globe artichokes. They are one of very few vegetables that grow with scarcely any attention at all. In mid summer they appear to die. Last year I even dug all mine out, thinking they must be exhausted after having produced bumper crops for eleven years. To my astonishment, once cooler, wetter weather arrived, so did new growth, bigger and better than ever, eventually reaching shoulder height. One can emphatically describe the globe artichoke as a long-lived perennial. 

It is possible to start new plants of globe artichokes from offshoots of the parent plant, and these do need attention in the form of protection from the sun until established in a sunny, permanent spot in the garden, about three feet by three across. A circle of low wire around the perimeter will retain a light mulch, continuously renewed. That’s about it, apart from harvesting the young globes, because winter rain takes care of irrigation needs. 

The globe artichoke is in the sunflower family, readily evinced if one or two old globes are allowed to bloom into gorgeous, sky-blue thistles. Cut these for display in the house to avoid weakening the plants. The classification of this family, an extensive one, with over a thousand genera, is best left to botanists, since it seems to be in constant transition, like so many plants now that botanists can tinker with chromosome counts. Like many a plant hunter we could simply refer to it as an ADC, another damned compositae, were it not that botanists have now decided it’s an asteraceae. Note the endings of these two family names: those ending in the simpler form, -ae, indicate plants of ancient origin, in terms of human knowledge. 

Regardless of name, some members are indeed intransigent, causing hay fever, killing cattle, and generally being tiresome. On the whole, though, it is a glorious group. There is, for instance, something about a lawn sprinkled with small fat white daisies that eternally beguiles with its innocence. 

Probably native to the Mediterranean region, our artichoke, Cynara scolymus, is named after Cynara, a beauty beloved and deified by Zeus. Homesick on Mount Olympus, she frequently returned to earth, so enraging Zeus that he permanently bound her there, turned into our useful thistle. C. scolymus has a relative, the cardoon (C. cardunculus), that has naturalized in the Tilden hills. Local lore says these plants were started there by an Italian. The cardoon’s flower buds are too meager and spiky to eat, but the blanched stalks are edible when cooked. Both plants are thought by some people to have aphrodisiac and generative properties, enhancing the possibility of producing male offspring. 

There are many recipes for cooking artichokes, most of them elaborate. The easiest way to eat them, after boiling them for about 20 minutes, is to dip each leaf in a sauce. Before reaching this exquisite moment it is necessary to wash them, at which point insects can appear, such as aphids clustered around the stem, readily rinsed off with a small brush, and earwigs, which hide deep inside and have a disconcerting way of rushing out and threatening the chef with raised pincers. Tapping the globes against the risers of the back steps on the way from garden to kitchen will dislodge some of these. Large artichokes can be cut in half with a cleaver, which makes it easier to see lurking creatures. I try to give earwigs a sporting chance of survival, shouting the equivalent of “Timber!” before I cleave, but some decapitation can occur. 

Earwigs are interesting in their own right. They do no great damage that I can see, and this year, since there were very few aphids, they must indeed control these, as Powell and Hogue in California Insects imply. They also play a role in keeping decaying matter to a manageable level. 

Nutritionally, globe artichokes provide modest amounts of vitamins and minerals, and a significant quantity of fiber. When it comes time to feast on their leaves, I follow Julia Child’s recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking for making mayonnaise in a blender. Then I mix a little of this with a chili paste made from a blending of tomato paste, tamari, water, and Syrian or Aleppo spicey red pepper. Twist, pull, dip, scrape—mmm! So good! And so digestible, too. 

When I read the obituaries these days I’m always keen to learn whether the deceased has reproduced. It is after all a matter of importance to all of us that our species should survive and thrive. Just so with Cynara, apparently dead, in reality busy below ground, perhaps even gone for a brief fling on Mt. Olympus, awaiting the right moment to return to light and life.