I have had a long enchantment with the artichoke, one that extends deep into my childhood. Both my parents adore them and bought them for us when they could, a delicacy our whole family relished. We spoke of their exquisiteness as we scraped off the soft underbellies of their bud scales with our teeth and tossed the fibrous shells into a communal bowl. We squealed with delight when we heard they were on the menu and requested them for our birthday dinners.
I grew up in Wisconsin, where artichokes can’t survive the winter, and didn’t know anyone else who ate them for dinner. My parents are Californians who came to the Midwest with a predisposition for this Mediterranean relic, and always served them in the same simple way: steamed, small bowls at each place setting with a mixture of melted butter and lemon juice for dipping.
What I’ve known about artichokes from the very beginning is that they force you to savor. The outer scales, tough and with little meat, create a yearning for more sweet, nutty artichoke flavor that the larger, middle scales deliver in tidy little bites. The thin, inner scales, so delicate you can eat them whole, don’t offer as much flavor, but create an illusion of sustenance. And just as you near the center—where that great, tender heart awaits—you encounter a fortress of stiff hairs, sticky with steam and threatening to coat the whole outside of your artichoke heart if you’re not careful.
At first, I would hand the mess over to one of my parents and request they do it for me, but as I got older, I began to enjoy the task of liberating that fragile flower base we call a heart from its hairy cap. And while I would never refuse a pealed and dressed artichoke heart, some part of its flavor is forever linked to the journey I must take to reach it.
Years later, working on a farm in western Oregon, I was spending the day weeding thistles, clumsily learning how to grasp and pull them without receiving a hundred synchronized stabbings, cursing their armored tenacity. We piled them separately from the compost, to avoid spreading their scourge more thoroughly into the fields, and kept them covered with a tarp to stop their already-formed seed heads from dispersing.
It was a hot day, and as I lifted the tarp to drop off my first load, I caught a whiff of artichoke loveliness tinged with the earthy sweetness of decomposition. I breathed deeply, felt myself covet the smell of butter and lemon juice to go along with it.
Thistles are the raucous cousins of the artichoke. If you let an artichoke mature into a flower, it resembles a giant thistle blossom, those pesky hairs atop the heart opening to electric purple. Though many varieties have been bred to lose the trait, some artichokes have spines protruding from the tip of each bud scale, making for more kitchen tedium to remove them before cooking.
In places where artichokes are grown on a commercial scale, such as California, seeds from the artichoke flowers disperse into outlying areas and revert back to an ancestral species, the wild cardoon (Cynara cardunculus). This spiny beast can grow up to five feet in diameter, rendering rangeland difficult to navigate and outcompeting more approachable forage.
Though the wild thistles whose genetics eventually yielded cultivated artichokes are a subgroup native only to the Mediterranean region, all thistles belong to the same plant family, Asteraceae, or the Sunflower Family. The thistles we unintentionally steamed under the tarp at the farm were likely also an edible variety, though one whose journey to edibility is considerably thornier and arguably less rewarding.
Artichoke flavor is dominated by a thick sweetness that seems to prevail over all other flavors on the plate. This is due to cynarine, a chemical compound present throughout the plant and in high concentration in the bud scales, whose name comes from the artichoke genus, Cynara. Cynarine has the curious ability to inhibit taste receptors on the tongue, causing everything else you imbibe thereafter to seem cloaked in honey.
How is it that this arsenal of a plant convinced us to put it in our mouths? And who would have guessed that its payoff would be as tender and sweet as ripe fruit? Standing over that pile of composting thistles smelling like a happy kitchen, I had my first inkling of how easily hard feelings can be softened and curiosity kindled for a plant I would have liked to eradicate a few moments earlier.
Perhaps the Cynara clan of thistles held a similar allure over ancient Mediterranean gardeners; hooked by edible whiffs, they found a way in. Or, perhaps, they were incited by the thorns themselves, saw them as a sign of something worthy hidden inside. With the first tastings of young leaves or tender stalks, they discovered cynarine’s compulsion, numbing the tongue of any memory but saccharine kindness.