On National Artichoke Day, Dip into Some Fun Facts

If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it must BE a duck, right?

That line of reasoning applies to many things in our world, but artichokes aren’t one of them.

Despite the fact that artichokes are widely considered a vegetable, they’re typically prepared and eaten like a vegetable, they taste like a vegetable, and they have a similar nutrient profile to many vegetables, they aren’t vegetables at all — at least not technically. 

Artichoke flower | Vego Garden
Artichoke flower

Instead, artichokes are the unopened flower buds of the thistle plant. In fact, unharvested artichokes will bloom into a purple thistle flower. (We eat the fleshy part of the bud.)

Granted, you may not want to give your loved one a bouquet of artichoke flowers for Valentine’s Day or your anniversary. The plant is more appropriate on a plate than in a vase.  

Still, that’s a pretty impressive lifecycle story, and it’s just one of the many fascinating layers to unpeel on National Artichoke Day, March 16.

What’s in a name?

Like many other unofficial holidays, National Artichoke Day isn’t very old. It seems to have begun in the mid-2000s, probably in California, which produces nearly all of the U.S.-grown artichokes. (No wonder artichokes are California’s official state vegetable.)

In contrast, the artichoke itself goes back two millennia.

The first reference to artichokes dates to 371 B.C., when the Greek philosopher Theophrastus — a student of Aristotle who was often referred to as the “father of botany” — wrote about seeing the plants growing in Italy and Sicily. Scientists and historians believe the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all enjoyed artichokes.

It wasn’t until the year 1530 that the word artichoke entered the English vocabulary, having first been ‘al-ḵaršūfa’ in Arabic, ‘alcarchofa,’ in old Spanish, and ‘articiocco’ in Italian. 

As for the scientific name for artichoke, it’s Cynara cardunculus. The name derives from a later Greek tale that goes something like this: Zeus, the king of gods, fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Cynara and offered her a place on Mount Olympus. Eventually, though, Cynara grew homesick and visited her family on Earth. As punishment, an enraged Zeus transformed her into an artichoke, a prickly and closed off plant bound to the earth forever.

Getting to the good part

Artichoke | Vego Garden
We can’t know for sure how ancient man liked his artichokes, but today there are several surefire ways to prepare and enjoy them. The first step is to determine which of the artichoke’s three distinct parts you’ll eat.
  • The outer bracts are fibrous purple or green leaves that are too tough to eat. 
  • The inner bracts are smaller, more tender leaves located under the outer bracts. The edible portion is at the base of the inner bracts.
  • The choke is the fuzzy, inedible center.
  • The heart is the most prized and delicious part. It’s located at the base of the bud.
  • The stem can also be cooked and eaten.

Regardless of which edible part you prefer, artichokes are easy to prepare. You can steam or boil them with lemon slices, bay leaves and peppercorns, or grill them with seasonings and olive oil. 

Alternatively, you can stuff them after cooking by prying out the fuzzy choke then filling the cavity with breadcrumbs, cheese, and herbs, or other favorite ingredients.

The heart can be eaten on its own or dipped in sauce, like melted butter, vinaigrette, or mayonnaise.

Then, of course, there’s the ubiquitous spinach and artichoke dip, which may have done more for popularizing artichokes than any other recipe.

Just remember: When you’re cooking artichokes start with the freshest you can find. The bud should feel heavy for its size, be free of brown spots, and have tightly closed leaves. While cooking time will vary depending on the method, the best way to make sure the artichoke is done is to pull off an outer leaf. If it gives easily, the artichoke is ready to eat.

There’s art in artichokes

Hosting a tasting party is a great way to celebrate artichokes on their special day. Invite friends and family to a potluck where everyone brings a dish featuring artichokes. They’re great on salads, pizzas, and pasta, and make a unique ingredient in omelets. 

But eating artichokes isn’t the only option.

Why not visit a farmers market to learn about the different varieties of artichokes. That’s also a great way to support local agriculture.

Or think about booking a trip to Castroville, California, the self-proclaimed artichoke capital of the world.

Or, if you really have a creative itch to scratch, don’t forget there’s “art” in artichoke: Cover the spiky artichoke exterior with paint or ink then dab it directly onto paper or fabric to make a unique print of its texture. Or use an artichoke as the base for a clay or papier-mâché sculpture. 

There’s a lot more to these layered buds than being the sidekick to spinach in an appetizer. Whether you call them a vegetable or prefer to refer to them rightfully as flowers, National Artichoke Day Mar. 16 is a perfect time to explore how multifaceted artichokes really are.  

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