A native of the western or central Mediterranean, the artichoke is a perennial plant in the thistle group of the sunflower. The wild variety of the species is called a cardoon. Sicilians claim that the plant originated on the island. In the town of Cerda (the “artichoke capital” in the Province of Palermo) a sculptural monument in its main square is dedicated to the plant’s presence.
Thistles, either in the form of artichoke or cardoon, have been consumed since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome. The flower bud is its edible part.
The Romans preserved artichoke hearts in honey and vinegar and seasoned them with cumin. The vegetable was neglected after the fall of Rome, but remained to be nurtured by Arabs who transported the plant to Spain.
North African Moors who had settled there began cultivating artichokes in the area of Granada; another Arab group, the Saracens, became identified with chokes in Sicily. This suggests an Arab origin. The European name is derived from “al-khurshuf,” the Arabic term for thistle. It became alcarchofa in Spanish, articiocco in Italian and ultimately artichoke.
Interest in the vegetable was revived in the mid-fifteenth century when the plant was cultivated around Naples and gradually spread to other parts of Europe and, eventually, to America. In the process, the artichoke turned out to be much more than just a delicacy. It became associated with medicine, sexual performance and organized (Sicilian) crime.
Cure & Aphrodisiac
The artichoke’s medicinal properties have long been praised. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder ascribed various health benefits to the plant’s consumption. All plants of the thistle family were recommended for stimulating digestion and treating rheumatism in various ways, not only in Europe but also by Native Americans and in Chinese medicine. The juice of the leaves was used in skin treatment.
Traditional uses are borne out by modern research that has shown artichoke to aid digestion, liver and gall bladder function and to reduce cholesterol levels. The plant is rich in Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and minerals.
When, according to Greek myth, Zeus emerged from the sea one day to visit his brother Poseidon, he observed a pretty young girl by the name of Cynara. He seduced her and, turning her into a goddess, took her to Mount Olympus. She disobeyed him by making secret visits to her family. In anger, he tossed Cynara aside and turned her into an artichoke. The scientific name for the plant therefore became Cynara cardunculus and its erotic association lingered.
The pairing of artichokes with sexual potency was stressed in later medical textbooks. In 1576, Boldo Bartolmeo published his Libro della natura (Book of Nature) in Venice. The book was a revised version of a popular tract entitled Libreto di tute le cosse che se manzano (Little Treatise on the Things One Eats), first published in 1508 by Padua-born Michele Savonarola, former physician to Niccolo III d‘Este, Marquis of Ferrara, and one of the outstanding practitioners of his era.
The book illustrated the nature and properties of food with particular attention to human health and well-being (the “regimen sanitas”). In Boldo’s updated account artichokes are praised for possessing the virtue – as the author delicately puts it – of “provoking Venus for both men and women; for women making them more desirable, and helping the men who are in these matters rather tardy.” The artichoke became widely lauded as an aphrodisiac that enhanced performance and helped conception.
Catherine de Medici & Henry VIII
Originally associated with Italian cuisine, artichokes reached the rest of Europe when Catherine de Medici married Henry II of France at the tender age of fourteen. Having arrived in Paris from Florence in 1533, she brought her kitchen staff with her.
The artichoke was an instant gastronomic success at the Court. Catherine de Medici and her circle of intimate friends gave the vegetable an over-sexed reputation. Inevitably, Henry VIII was tempted to test its impact on the functioning of the genitals.
Artichokes had been introduced to England by immigrants from the Low Countries where they had been in vogue since the start of the sixteenth century.
In 1611, the incomparable Antwerp-born woman artist Clara Peeters painted a “Still Life with Fish, a Candle, Artichokes, Crab and Prawns,” the earliest recorded fish still life in art. Fish was a staple food in the Netherlands, but the presence of artichokes on the table is surprising. Peeters and a number of her contemporaries had become curious enough in the “new” vegetable (and its intriguing shape) to include them in their paintings.
By 1530 artichokes were reported to be growing in Henry VIII’s formal gardens at his Essex summer resort, the Palace of Beaulieu in Boreham. The King’s favorite vegetable soon became fashionable and associated with copious dining. Its reputation as an aphrodisiac was undisputed. A century later, botanist Nicholas Culpeper described artichokes in his Herbal as “under the dominion of Venus” – they spur lust.
Landscapers at major English estates of the sixteenth century were ordered by their employers to design and cultivate ‘artichoke gardens’. Dating from the reign of Elizabeth I, there was in London a tavern named the Queen’s Head and Artichoke in Albany Street, Regent’s Park. The second part of the name was allegedly added at the Queen’s request who, whilst dining at the inn, took a liking to the taste of artichokes.
The vegetable’s appeal did not diminish. Botanist John Evelyn was the one of the first notable British historians of gardening. In 1699, he published his Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (familiarly known as Evelyn’s “salad list”) in which he paid ample attention to the preparation of artichokes which were best enjoyed (with a glass of wine) by the heads “being slit in quarters, first eaten raw, with oil, a little Vinegar, salt and Pepper.”
It was around this time that the American colonies were beginning to take an interest in the plant. Artichokes were grown in the United States as early as the eighteenth century. French and Spanish immigrants had been involved in their introduction to the United States.
George and Martha Washington cultivated globe artichokes at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello and first listed the plant in 1770 in his Garden Book. However, as a foodstuff artichokes remained a rarity and were not a popular edible until the twentieth century.
Early settlers and native-born Americans had previously consumed a limited supply of vegetables, consisting of (sweet) potatoes, cabbage, lettuce, corn, beans and tomatoes. Mass immigration changed that habit and pattern. By the 1920s, people were offered a wider and more diverse range of vegetables, including asparagus, avocados, endive, spinach and sweet peppers.
Andrew John Molera, a Californian landowner in the Salinas Valley of Monterey County, decided in 1922 to lease land that had previously been dedicated to the growing of sugar beets to immigrant Italian farmers, encouraging them to cultivate artichokes. His reasons were purely economic as demand for the vegetable was outstripping production and prices were rising fast.
He and his tenant farmers formed the Monterey Bay Artichoke Growers cooperative, creating the Sea-Lion brand. Molera shipped their produce to New York City, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans, firmly establishing the artichoke as part of the American diet.
His success set a precedent. Within a relatively short period of time California dominated this particular corner of the nation’s vegetable market with Monterey County at the heart of its cultivation. Henrietta Shore’s mural “Artichoke Pickers” (1934), originally located at Monterey’s Old Customs House, provides a lively image of a harvest in Salinas Valley.
King of Artichokes
Citrus fruits have grown in Sicily since Arabic conquerors planted trees on the island in the eleventh century. The bay around Palermo derives its name of “Conca d’Ora” (The Golden Basin) from an abundance of the species. From the mid-nineteenth century onward the Mafia became involved.
It was in the island’s citrus groves that the organization began developing their characteristic practices of intimidation and extortion. Some historians argue that the Sicilian Mafia grew out of lemons. New York City produced its own entrepreneur of food rackets.
Ciro Terranova was born in 1888 in the “Mafia” town of Corleone. In 1893, his parents moved the family to the United States, lived for a while in Louisiana and Texas, before settling permanently in New York City where Ciro and his brothers met up with their half-brother Giuseppe Morello.
They would later form the powerful Morello syndicate that was involved in the familiar rackets of alcohol, gambling, etc. Based in Manhattan’s Italian Harlem, it was one of New York’s earliest crime families and gained dominance by defeating the Neapolitan Camorra of Brooklyn.
Ciro created his own corner of criminal activity. Keenly aware of both the profitable artichoke market (especially in his own Italian community) and the limited availability of the plant because of specific growing conditions, he saw an opportunity of monopolizing the sales. Having founded a produce company, he purchased all artichokes shipped to New York from California and resold the product at a massive profit.
In the process, his gang terrorized distributors and merchants. Its members launched attacks on the artichoke fields of farmers reluctant to deal with him, hacking down the plants with machetes in the dead of night. They even attacked farms with gas bombs dropped from small planes.
Ciro’s racket earned him an estimated million dollar each year between about 1925 and 1935. He became known and feared as the “Artichoke King.”
Queen of Artichokes
New York’s first Italian-American Mayor Fiorello La Guardia was elected in 1934 on a platform to fight corruption in the city. He was determined to rid the streets of criminal activity which, during the Great Depression, included extorted “extra” payments on fruits and vegetables. Why did he pick a fight with racketeers of the artichoke industry?
The (baby) artichoke was particularly popular in New York City’s densely populated Italian neighborhoods, but its trade at local vegetable markets was not monitored by the NYPD. The Mayor identified the artichoke as both as symbol and core activity of the Morello clan. He decided to take on the Artichoke King himself. As the produce racket was an interstate affair, Herbert Hoover (head of the FBI) was alerted. The Mayor expected prompt action from the federal agencies.
At 6:50 a.m. on December 21, 1935, two police trumpeters – in true Italian style – roused workers at the Bronx Terminal Market. La Guardia climbed onto the back of a vegetable truck and proclaimed a ban on baby artichokes for posing a “serious and threatening emergency” in the city, pronouncing that a “racketeer in artichokes is no different than a racketeer in slot machines.” His operatic action was dramatically labelled the “Great Artichoke War.”
Three days later, the extortion racket was broken. Mobsters were arrested and five members of Terranova’s gang imprisoned. The illegal surcharges they imposed on Californian artichokes ended and the ban was lifted.
Having defeated the Mafia’s control, La Guardia enlisted the cooperation of local restaurants to promote and drive up demand for his beloved baby artichokes. Grocery sales rocketed and recipes proliferated, spreading awareness and popularity of the vegetable.
The success story continued after the war. The farming community of Castroville, located about fifteen miles northeast of Monterey, became a focus of agricultural and commercial activity. It was here that in 1948 a young lady named Norma Jean Mortenson was chosen as California’s first official “Artichoke Queen.”
In the years that followed Castroville developed into the “Artichoke Centre of the World,” hosting (just like Cerda in Sicily) an annual festival dedicated to the vegetable. Norma Jean, having changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, became the irrepressible sex symbol of the 1950s and early 1960s as well as an emblem of the era’s sexual revolution. The artichoke had fully regained its formal reputation.
Illustrations, from above: The wild Sicilian spiny artichoke with thorny leaves; Clara Peeters, “Still Life with Fish, a Candle, Artichokes, Crab and Prawns,” 1611 (Prado, Madrid); Henrietta Shore, “Artichoke Pickers,” 1934 (Mural, now in the care of Californian State Parks Department in Sacramento); Ciro Terranova, mugshot NY Police Department, January 1930 (Library of Congress); two policemen blowing trumpets to herald Mayor La Guardia’s ban of sales of baby artichokes, December 21, 1935 (NYC Municipal Archives); and Marilyn Monroe, California’s first official “Artichoke Queen,” 1948.