The Fat of the Land

Month: June, 2013

How to Eat an Artichoke

Anton_Seder_Artichokes

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.

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Turf

Albrecht_Dürer_-_The_Large_Piece_of_Turf,_1503_-_Google_Art_Project

Long before boulevards, city parks or TruGreen existed, the Renaissance painter Albrecht Durer captured the loveliness of grass in his naturalistic study, A Large Piece of Turf. The painting is deceptively simple, presenting a patch of grass and a foreground of bare soil with nearly photographic accuracy, and depicting a diversity of species that would make any golf course groundskeeper choke on his coffee during morning rounds. Dandelion and grass seedheads float atop a woven tapestry of foliage textures and shades of green that add up to something more than the commonplace subject they portray.

Green turf, the bigger the better, dominates our residential landscapes. Yet a quick look at the gardening section of an urban bookstore might convince you the American cult of the lawn is dead, so numerous are publications on cramming yards with edibles or ornamentals to create grass-free oases. Of course, the lawn abides, as a drive through any suburban development proves, even in regions where the usual turf grasses won’t grow; such as in south Florida, where walking through a lawn barefoot feels like strolling across a scouring brush. It doesn’t seem to matter, in these instances, that the tactile pleasure of shorn Bluegrass is lost to a less flexible species, perhaps because it’s the aesthetic that counts—that wide, monotonous expanse of greenness our brains adore.

I, too, once resolved to abolish the lawn, ripping out sod and planting perennials, shrubs and vegetable beds, a makeshift patio of cedar chips in the center—anything but boring old turf. I enjoy the cozy clutter of my backyard space, but woodchips (or any other hard surface) do not replace the usefulness of lawn: a place to walk or sit with or without shoes or furniture. And though it’s taken me some time to admit it, the combination of well-kept turf and intricate plantings is my favorite sort of garden composition. I’ve recently acquired a much bigger space that requires regular mowing and I love it most just after the grass is cut; its cool plushness and elegant simplicity amid the tangle of everything else.

In his book PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon contemplates why we might have a hard-wired affinity for the visual transition between cluttered forest and open grassland. As humanoids, our species moved over time from dwelling in the forest to the more abundant savanna. And it is in that tall grass where we may have first learned to walk upright, in order to see above the grass and scan long distances for water, safety or prey.

Of the Midwestern prairie lands he writes, “While something primal in me may long for the haven of the forest, its apprenticeship in the trees, it also recognizes this grand openness is the kind of place where it became itself.”

Surely affinity for the setting that triggered one of our most significant evolutionary transformations is the pearl turning inside our obsession with manicured turf. But the African savannas bear little resemblance to suburbia. The link between untamed grassland and our current standards for landscape grass is ruminants.

The word lawn has Celtic origins, referring to a place of enclosure. “Natural” lawns have been maintained in English forests by wild herds of grazing animals over the centuries, and their domesticated cousins did the same in the communal pasturelands of towns and cities. Thus, the lawn aesthetic we aspire to today originated in the maritime climate of Celtic cultures, where consistent rainfall and mist kept the grass lush and grazing herds nibbled it to a thick, low mat. Over time, desire for the aesthetic crept into landscape design, and shorn grass eventually became a symbol of wealth (unused space being the ultimate prerogative) in European and then American estates.

The problem, of course, is that most climates are not like the British Aisles’, and grass growing elsewhere needs significant pampering to maintain such deep, endless green. Collectively, contemporary lawn care practices are estimated to eclipse agricultural applications of herbicides and fertilizers, and are responsible for fuel spillage equal to an Exxon Valdez oil spill each summer from leaky engines and dribbles missing the gas tank. Lawns planted in arid regions are especially detrimental because of their taxation of the water supply and the increasingly complex (and environmentally destructive) infrastructure required to bring it to them.

In our poetic way, we love what we can’t really have, and we love it from a place we can’t name or control. The challenge is to reconcile our intrinsic desire for grassy expanses with their overuse of resources. Some replace turf with native plantings of perennials, grasses and shrubs. Others go for production, sacrificing lawn for vegetables. A few brave souls and indifferent renters (even some daring golf courses) let their lawn go brown in the dry season. We are lucky to have a natural time of greenness in our climate, so perhaps we should also think of green turf as a seasonal delicacy, to be relished in its time and dreamt of in its absence.