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California's vegetable with a heart has a history that includes everyone from racketeers to gourmets. Check out the recipe for cream of artichoke soup from Duarte's.

a field of artichokes, image
Photo caption
Artichokes are not only a coveted vegetable in California (please pass the butter), but a field of them is a sight to behold.

If you were asked to vote for the Vegetable Most Likely to Succeed, the contenders would be many. The carrot, probably; the potato, perhaps; zucchini, almost certainly. These are all friendly, approachable vegetables that don't put you through an obstacle course to eat them. As for the Least Likely candidate, the artichoke would be hard to beat. Not only does it have thorns, which is off-putting, but it's designed like a multilayered fibrous suit of armor. Its leaves are three-quarters inedible and, as a final hurdle, it offers a mouthful of throat-tickling fluff at its center appropriately called the "choke."

And yet here is a vegetable about to be celebrated with its own festival for the 41st year in a row. On May 20 and 21, marching bands and artichoke-festooned floats will set the tone as the Artichoke Festival Parade wends its way through the streets of Castroville, Calif., a farming community some 16 miles north of Monterey. Under the famous sign proclaiming "Castroville, the Artichoke Center of the World," arts and crafts people will preside over booths covered with artichoke memorabilia: T-shirts, aprons, candlesticks. Human artichokes in many-petaled green costumes will stroll with escorts dressed as jars of mayonnaise and bars of butter. This year, 20,000 visitors are expected for events such as the 10K footrace through artichoke fields, the car shows, artichoke eating at food concessions, recipe contests, and chefs' demonstrations. As always, the majority of proceeds go to charity.

Although user-friendliness is not one of the artichoke's virtues, these apple-shaped members of the thistle family get our attention. Perhaps it's the vegetable's checkered past, filled with notorious and glamorous associations and a history that precedes its relationship with Castro-ville, which started production in 1922.

California has led U.S. production of artichokes since the 1890s when Half Moon Bay's Italian farmers planted the first crops. A decade and a half later, they exported artichokes back east to enthusiastic New Yorkers. So enthusiastic, it turned out, that New York's racketeers wanted a piece of the lucrative action. Not only did they terrorize distributors and produce merchants, they even launched an attack on the artichoke fields from Montara to Pescadero, hacking down the plants with machetes in the dead of night. These "artichoke wars" led Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to declare "the sale, display, and possession" of artichokes in New York illegal. In his words: "A racketeer in artichokes is no different than a racketeer in slot machines." This put artichokes on the front page, increasing their demand everywhere, even among those who'd never seen one. Finally, La Guardia publicly admitted that he himself loved the vegetable (with mayo) and after only one week he lifted the ban.

Back in Castroville, landowner Andrew Molera encouraged farmers to grow artichokes, which he thought would thrive in the Salinas Valley's loamy, well-drained soil and cool, fog-dusted summers. This first crop was planted in the early '20s and today Castroville, home to two major packers and the country's only artichoke processing plant, grows 75 percent of the state's artichokes.

Of all the artichoke's moments in the sun, probably the most glittering took place in 1947 when Marilyn Monroe came to Castroville. Although her appearance had nothing to do with artichokes, some local growers asked the starlet to be California's Artichoke Queen. She accepted. They were either totally unprepared for her response or there was a refreshing absence of PR hotshots, because the photographs taken of her coronation, reportedly at a Kiwanis Club luncheon, have been lost. The event is memorialized by a yellowed newspaper clipping of a smiling Marilyn, staring adoringly at an artichoke and surrounded by a small crowd of embarrassed gentlemen. In another Hollywood affiliation, actress Kim Novak was served a plate of fried artichokes at a Castroville restaurant. She devoured them happily—after sprinkling them liberally with sugar.

Even ordinary people have been baffled by the artichoke's idiosyncrasies. Almost anyone who hasn't undergone formal artichoke training has a story about chewing the inedible leaves interminably until, as one friend confessed, "I finally just hid them in my pocket."

Cultivation of the traditional artichoke, called the green globe, is labor-intensive. The plant must be hand harvested before the buds, which are the edible part, flower into blue-violet blossoms. Propagation is accomplished by cuttings from the rootstock. Although artichokes are being grown from seed, too, some artichoke aficionados consider these thornless varieties mushy and lacking in flavor. Consumers can identify the seed type from the true-blue green globe by searching for the telltale thorns.

Last year, California, which accounts for nearly 100 percent of the commercial crop, produced more than 9,300 acres of artichokes at a value more than $46 million. But this fernlike plant with its deeply serrated leaves, whose name comes from the Arabic al' quarshuf, was around even before California. Reliable evidence suggests that in the second century artichokes were the costliest garden vegetable in the Roman marketplace. In the 1500s, when Catherine de Médicis left Italy to become the bride of Henry II, she purportedly brought along her beloved artichokes, transporting them into French gastronomy. A hint of scandal surrounded her devotion to the intriguingly configured vegetable, which is said to have aphrodisiac properties.

Its popularity spread through Europe and on to the New World, where it was often found on the tables of wealthy Virginia planters. Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery contains a 17th-century recipe entitled "To Make Hartichoak Pie." By the early 20th century, Fannie Farmer notes in her ninth edition that California artichokes were selling in Boston for 30 to 40 cents each.

But the artichoke's appeal is no mystery: Its lush texture and nutty taste lure us through all impediments. No wonder recipes abound. A French classic called barigoule features the thistle braised with mushrooms and ham, while the Italians take pride in carciofi al'inferno: sautéed, filled with garlic, crumbs, and capers. One of the world's most succulent preparations is closer to home. In Pescadero, Duarte's Tavern has been knee-deep in artichokes almost since the family restaurant was established in 1890. The restaurant has an artichoke patch out back from which each morning the cooks gather enough for the day's orders of Duarte's cream of artichoke soup. When asked for the recipe, owner Ron Duarte was fairly nonspecific: "I just make it is what I do." A little coaxing yielded the recipe, but only traveling to the restaurant assures the real thing. Wherever you live, it's worth a special journey.

Duarte's Cream of Artichoke Soup  serves 4

Bring water to a boil with oil, lemon juice, and two garlic cloves. Add the artichokes and cook 45 minutes. Remove hearts and puree in food processor with some of the stock, remaining garlic, salt, and pepper. Slice ½ to 1 cup of the tender end of the leaves into thin strips. Reheat soup with leaves, half-and-half, and thyme.

4 cups water

1 tbs. lemon juice

1 tbs. oil

4 garlic cloves, crushed

3 lbs. artichokes (3 to 4 medium, trimmed of thorns)

2 cups chicken stock

1 cup half-and-half

1 tsp. ground pepper

1 tsp. salt sprig of fresh thyme or

1 tsp. dried thyme

Photography courtesy of China Crisis/Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in May 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.