Greetings dear readers and welcome to my little project! It's called a:z. In my effort to become a more educated and, hopefully, more skilled cook, I plan to learn about the history, lore, and characteristics of as many individual ingredients as possible - vegetables, spices, fruits, etc. - from 'a' to 'z'. Which is why the project is called a:z. Clever, no? Ultimately, there will be more than one food item featured for each letter of the alphabet, but I'll try to be somewhat consecutive in the beginning so we don't all get confused and dizzy. All original drawings will be by yours truly. :)
It's fitting that as my culinary journey begins, the a:z project begins with the vexing and perplexing artichoke. First, let me just say there is nothing I love more than artichoke hearts. Whether they are grilled, sauteed, fried, pickled, or marinated, I love them like wild. But when presented with a whole artichoke, I freeze. I've read, scratch that, painstakingly studied the step-by-step instructions and understand the process for peeling an artichoke in theory. I'm just completely unable to execute. I choke. Or I guess in this case I arti-choke. :) More than once I've ended up with a huge pile of artichoke leaves at my feet and nothing else. Well okay the wounded pride. But still. Before we arrive at the letter 'z', my dream is to confidently and skillfully whittle one of these guys down to its delectable little heart. (Oh, and I also want to be able to make my own pasta, but thankfully we are not discussing the letter 'p' today or I'd probably just give up right now and start drinking wine.)
Anyhoo, the artichoke is native to the Mediterranean. One of the oldest known cultivated plants, it is actually the edible flower bud of a thistle-like plant of the sunflower family. The sunflower is the state flower of Kansas, which has nothing to do with anything but since I live in Kansas City, I felt compelled to point this out. My address is in Kansas City, Missouri, though, not Kansas City, Kansas, which confuses everyone and is a longish story so perhaps this little tidbit of Midwestern geography can be addressed in another post.
Okay so where was I? Ah yes, the artichoke!! The artichoke was introduced to England in the 1500's. According to Elizabethan folklore, the artichoke was born when a beautiful, ill-tempered woman made the gods so angry that they turned her into a prickly thistle, which they believed more appropriately aligned her looks with her disposition. Wouldn't it be interesting if this happened to people in real life? And there's even more racy lore! Considered a powerful aphrodisiac, the artichoke was available only to men. If a woman ate an artichoke it was considered uber-scandalous. Some believe Catherine de Medici may have introduced the artichoke to France when she married Henry II at the tender age of 14. Catherine was thought to have eaten artichokes right out in the open and in substantial quantities. But since Henry II was rumored to have many mistresses and was evidently not even the tiniest bit keen on Catherine, she clearly wasn't thinking things through.
Did you know that Castroville, California, is the artichoke capital of the world? It's true! Every year they hold an artichoke festival, which has a queen (or a king). And in 1947 (or 1948, accounts differ), their very first artichoke queen was none other than Marilyn Monroe. I know! But before you get too excited, the king a couple of years back was that guy from American Idol who sang 'She Bangs' off key and was famous for like a week and then, evidently, became an artichoke king in Castroville where he continues to reign today (okay I made that last part up).