The Zen of Artichokes

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

I love autumn.

If it’s not the leaves and all the color, then I find poignancy in the drying and dying weeds littering the ground. They embody survival to me.

One plant I particularly love is a thistle-like plant, filled with tiny seeds attached to billowy white parachutes. The least puff of wind forces the seeds out of their pods and they float in the wind, just like paratroopers, over the landscape, falling where they may, taking root at times in unfallow earth, staking a claim on the future.

As I pass dried clumps of thistles on my walk around the pristine pond near my house, I ponder how people began eating thistles.

And I realize that I eat thistles. I eat artichokes, a member of the thistle family.

When I was a child, my mother – the daughter of a truck driver for California Freight Lines – boiled those green globes to the color of vintage Army uniforms, the ones I only knew from old movies on late night TV. Mom grew up during the Depression and some nights all her family ate for dinner were boiled artichokes or boiled celery, leftover and semi-spoiled food that the trucking company gave my grandfather after he’d spent a long day hauling fruits and vegetables all over California.

So how did anyone ever decide to eat a thistle? Well, obviously hunger played a huge role, but something else also caused people to turn to these unlikely delicacies. When young and tender, it’s possible to eat the whole thing with nary a prickle or a poke. And that’s exactly how people in southern Italy and other places like Normandy cooked them, places where the plants thrived in salty soil. I imagine women and children gathering these tiny morsels in the sea-lapped fields of Italy and France.

Like tender dandelion leaves or other young wild plants, baby artichokes possess none of the “don’t touch me, don’t eat me” qualities of the big bruisers I see in the produce section. Alas, those are usually quite old when they arrive in the grocery store. Most of the time there’s no “claw” or spine on the end of the leaves to stab me as I wrestle them into position and cut off the tips.

Those spines mean survival for the artichoke, a way to ensure that predators with only sharp teeth stayed away. It’s only predators with sharp knives and boiling pots of water that they must fear.

With a little mayonnaise, these mature artichokes taste just fine. First I pluck off the leaves one by one. Then I scrape my front teeth over the meaty part of the leaves, one by one again. Eating an artichoke slows me down. I cannot gobble it like a hungry dog savaging a hunk of fresh meat.

To eat an artichoke takes time. And thought. Patience, too. A perfect food for meditation, I think.

Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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