Adventures in eating: dinosaur flowers

by Brian Clarey

Adventures in eating: dinosaur flowers

Ew,” said the 6-year-old. “What is that?” “It’s dinner,” I said. “Ew,” he said again. “I don’t like those. It looks like a little green pineapple.” “Actually,” I said, “I think it looks like a dinosaur flower.” After harvesting our radishes and lustfully clipping our fresh herbs, we’ve found our garden in a bit of a production lull. The tomatoes, which got a late start this year, are still forming and the peppers have yet to bud. There’s something that we believe to be an onion building mass in one lonely row, and some nasty critter came along and dug up all the beets. The fruit trees — peach and apricot — are sad and barren indeed. Still I had a hankering for some fresh veggies, which led to the purchase of a sack of artichokes, which incited the conversation with my son. You can’t grow artichokes around here — at least, not this kind. The North Carolina climate is suitable to grow the Jerusalem artichoke, which is not technically an artichoke but really more like a sunflower. I’m talking about the globe artichoke, that ancient, stegosaurian flower, the existence of which goes back as far as recorded human history.

The Greeks traced its history back to the gods. According to legend, the beautiful maiden Cynara was unafraid upon spying Zeus emerging from the sea. Impressed, the god made her his immortal concubine and set her up with a place near Mount Olympus. All was well until Cynara snuck back to earth to visit her mother; when Zeus learned of her transgression, he turned her into the artichoke as punishment, bound forever to earthly ground and the mortal plain. In Europe and Africa, they were feasted upon by pharaohs, emperors, chieftains and kings. In the 1800s the French brought them to Louisiana, where were cultivated until 1940, when they inexplicably disappeared. The Spaniards introduced them to Northern California, where by 1930 the market had been cornered by the mafia — specifically by an organization headed Ciro “Whitey” Terranova, who purchased most of the California crop and hacked down the rest, jacking up prices before they were shipped to New York and its large contingent of Italian-Americans for whom the food was an irreplaceable delicacy. As a result of the “Artichoke Wars,” in 1935 New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia declared artichokes illegal in the city… which lasted one week, at which time the mayor professed his love for them.

My own relationship with the vegetable can be traced directly to my Italian-American mother, who made them the way her mother, grandmother and noni used to do, and it is the only way I know how to prepare them. First, I cut the stems and chop about an inch off the top, exposing the center of the flower. To open them, I soak them for a bit in cold water with a little lemon juice to prevent discoloration. After I pull them from the water, I push on the bottoms to further spread the thorny petals. I shove a whole garlic clove in the center of each, dip the cut ends in breadcrumbs and put them in a large roasting pan with a little water on the bottom. I drizzle olive oil over the tops and then cook them for about an hour in a 350-degree oven. When the leaves pull off easily, I know they’re done. The cautious 6-year-old watched me pull the roasting pan from its place under the oven — the same roasting pan in which my mother used to make artichokes. “Ooh,” he said. “We haven’t used that in a while.” “It’s for the artichokes,” I said. “I don’t like artichokes,” he reminded me. “That’s fine,” I said. “There probably won’t be enough for you anyway.” This statement, I admit, was a trick. I whipped up a classic Italian dish for a side: browned Italian sausage, white beans

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According to Greek myth, Zeus turned his concubine, Cynara, into an artichoke.