season’s harvest: Baby Artichokes
According to San Francisco’s Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture ("CUESA"), the artichoke has been around for more than two millennia. Presumed to have been first grown in Northern Africa, this member of the thistle family quickly made its way across the Mediterranean to Greece and the Roman Empire. Upon observing the hedonism with which his fellow Romans devoured artichokes, Pliny the Elder remarked, “thus we turn into a corrupt feast the earth’s monstrosities, those which even the animals instinctively avoid." CUESA notes that once a group of Italian immigrants started farming near Half Moon Bay, Calif. in the late 19th century, it didn't take long for artichokes to catch on in the U.S. After only a few short years, serious acreage was being dedicated to artichokes in Monterey County, where the fog-laden climate and sandy-yetfertile soils were a perfect growing environment. After the end of World War I, farmers began shipping boxcars filled with artichokes by rail to the East Coast, where their popularity exploded in cities with large Italian populations. In the late 1930's, Ciro Terranova, a member of the New York mafia, monopolized the market for artichokes by buying up all of the product coming in from California and reselling it at a massive profit. Known as the “Artichoke King,” Terranova kept his profitable monopoly through intimidation of distributors, merchants and even growers. The mobster went so far as to hire thugs to hack up entire fields of artichokes with machetes if he didn't get the "cooperation" he wanted. These “Artichoke Wars” escalated to such a degree that then-New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia declared artichokes illegal in the city in an attempt to break the monopoly. Unable to resist the allure of the artichoke, LaGuardia lifted the ban after only one week. This time of year, markets are filled with chokes of all sizes. The giant Globe artichoke may attract the most attention, but we are partial to the more tender, baby chokes. Despite the name, baby artichokes are actually fully mature. They just happen to grow on a lower part of the same plant. Unlike their larger brethren, the baby artichoke does not need to be cored prior to eating. This makes them perfect for recipes that call for braising or frying. When shopping for artichokes, chose those that are heavy for their size and have tightly compacted leaves. Artichokes with leaves that have started to pull open, much like a flower, may have been picked too long ago.