Yes to Artichokes

The first time I had an artichoke, I was maybe 10.

My parents Are Not Artichoke People. I am not sure what qualifies someone as an Artichoke Person, but this is simply to say that artichokes were not a part of how I grew up. We were Transplants; expats; people who left the East Coast for sunnier climes, and so California cuisine baffled us at first: Guacamole – what the hell is that? Artichokes – are these even edible?

There were so many things about being a non-native Californian that confused me; us. As I kid, I struggled to lose that faintest trace of the garbage Philadelphia accent that makes my ears bleed to this day.

Say waterthe kids on the playground would instruct.

Wodder, I would reply.

Say nothey would taunt.

No? I would say, uncertainly – wondering how I was saying it wrong – with that terrible lilt on the vowel that even Mainliners can’t escape.

(To this day, my parents insist this linguistic travesty never befell me. To this day, my father still says talls, instead of towels, so what does that guy know?)

The first time I had an artichoke, I was having dinner with my aunt and uncle, who are not really my aunt and uncle, but are the people with whom my parents celebrate every major milestone and holiday. Our families are so close that I only know maybe two telephone numbers by heart these days besides my own and my office – my parents’ and my aunt and uncle’s. And my parents recently moved house and changed their phone number, meaning that in the event of an emergency, I’m limited to calling Carol and Sam.

The Night of My First Artichoke, my aunt was explaining to me how to eat the artichoke in the first place – how to pull back the leaves, and peel the edible skin off with my teeth. It was such an odd luxury for 10 year old me! What was this joy; this strange food that I could play with and eat at once?! I think we were dipping the petals in some kind of sauce, or pots of ranch dressing (ubiquitous on California tables), and generally enjoying our dinner, digging our way deeper and deeper into the mysterious veggies. It was just a typical night in Southern California.

I cannot lie – meals in California can be idyllic. I recall so many nights in the blue twilight; eating out-of-doors with the smell of the food overwhelmed by barbecue smoke and chlorine. I remember the evening parties at my parents’ old house – people gathered in the foyer under the curving staircase, or sitting in the dining room at holidays where everything looked beautiful but smelled ever-so-faintly of cat piss because there was always a geriatric or angry cat in the house. There was a kind of comfort, and wide-openness, and informality there that simply doesn’t exist on the East Coast.

But I didn’t know that then. I was just 10, and I was eating an artichoke for the first time.  I remember, we were laughing, and eating, and generally having a good time.

And then it happened.

Someone – I think my aunt – pulled back a petal to discover a HUGE BUG. Like, fat green caterpillar-sized creature. Inexplicably, we all screamed, dropped our utensils and napkins, and ran from the table. The bug was obviously dead, having been steamed within an inch of his life. But this was no comfort to any of us. We scurried out of the kitchen and hid under the staircase, huddling like a bunch of proper idiots; half-laughing, half-crying because what if one of us had eaten a bug?

Eventually, we mustered up the courage to return to the table; chucked the offending artichoke; and finished up the dinner with something else.

Since that day, while I have been perfectly happy to eat artichokes in things, I’ve never really had the taste for plain, steamed artichokes ever again.

It is funny, to me, how fear conditions our systems. How we become afraid of one, associated thing and it makes us unconsciously afraid of everything related to a single incident, forevermore. Fear is in our DNA, I suppose.

Relatedly, I am getting married on Saturday, and for the months and weeks leading up to this event, I have had to coach myself into believing that one bad incident – one seeming failure – is not predictive of the future. I have told myself that everything is different and this will not be the same. Because it is not the same, and I know it, but we are slaves to our DNA, and biology is an awfully hard thing to overcome.

In other words, the what-ifs of one caterpillar consumption should not ruin a lifetime of artichokes.

So when the florist called the other week and asked about some final details, she said, What do you think about using purple artichokes in the arrangements if we can get them? We liked them when we saw them at the flower market, right?

And without even thinking I replied, Yes to artichokes.

3 Comments

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  1. This may be my favorite piece of yours I’ve ever read. My mom was from the Midwest, but she was surprisingly food-adventurous. I’m not sure how she did it. We had artichokes on our California dinner table regularly, with a butter warmer holding a small bowl of melted butter for dipping, and a separate serving bowl of mayonnaise. After all the leaves were eaten, I liked cutting away the fluffy part, often purple-colored, above the meaty heart of the artichoke, that one can then eat spread with mayonnaise. Not once, and I am grateful for this, did we ever find a large steamed bug in an artichoke. When I was a child, I would wonder who ate the first artichoke. They do not look promising. Wishing you all good things on your upcoming wedding day, and in your new shared life.

  2. I love the fear and food analogy. Interesting how it really illustrates the silliness of the connections we make – yet how built in it is. Have a fabulous time on Saturday! Best wishes, xoxox.

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