According to Greek mythology there was once a beautiful young girl called Cynara who lived on the island of Zinari in the Aegean Sea. One day when the king of the gods, Zeus was visiting his brother Poseidon, he spied the lovely mortal girl by the sea. Cynara was unperturbed by the presence of the deity. Zeus must have seen this as a green light and wasted no time in seducing the maiden. Wishing to take her home to Olympia Zeus decided to change Cynara into an immortal, and so she became a goddess and went to live with the other gods. However, Zeus neglected the new goddess in favour of his wife Hera and Cynara soon became home sick for her mother and Zinari, so much so that she decided to sneak home for a brief visit. When Zeus discovered what she had done, he was most displeased and banished her from Olympia. She returned to earth transformed into the form of the plant we know as the artichoke. To this day the globe artichoke’s scientific name is Cynara scolymus.
Unlikely as it may seem this unusual edible thistle has a long association with beautiful women and as recently as 1947 the young Norma Jean Baker was crowned Miss California Artichoke Queen in the Castroville Artichoke Festival and so started Marilyn Monroe’s superstar career.
Ever since the time that Zeus banished Cynara from Olympia, the artichoke has experienced something of a rollercoaster ride in the popularity stakes. To the ancient Greeks and Romans artichokes were regarded as a great delicacy and aphrodisiac. They were thought to be a way of ensuring male offspring. Even so this opinion was not universally held as the Roman writer Pliny the Elder regarded them as “one of the earth’s monstrosities.”
With the fall of the Roman Empire the artichoke rather fell out of favour until the 16th century when the 14 year old Catherine de Medici was married to Henry II of France. Catherine is credited with popularising the artichoke in northern Europe, and it is said that she once ate so many that she thought she would die and was very ill with diarrhoea.
Within two hundred years artichokes were no longer regarded as a fashionable food for royalty, but dismissed by the German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe as thistles eaten by Italian peasants. Throughout history the Italians seem to have appreciated the artichoke more than any other nation, taking this fondness with them to America. By the 1920s Italian-Americans in New York represented a significant market for the crop, so much so that the Mafia turned its attentions to supplying the trade. Mafia member Ciro Terranova became known as the “Artichoke King” monopolising the market with a reign of terror known as the artichoke wars. He destroyed his competitors’ crops, hacking them to pieces with machetes, that is the artichokes not the competitors.
By 1935 the Mayor of New York Fiorello LaGuardia had had enough and declared the situation to be a serious and threatening emergency, and so he banned the sale, display and even possession of artichokes. Unlike the prohibition of alcohol (which lasted 13 years and had ended two years earlier) prohibition of the artichoke was short lived, possibly because LaGuardia himself was rather partial to them, and the ban was lifted after only a week. However, this was enough to see them plummet in price and break the Mafia’s stranglehold over supply. Perhaps sadly the ending of prohibition was too rapid to see the establishment of illegal underground dens dedicated to the consumption of artichokes or speakeasies glamorising the image of the fallen Goddess Cynara. Now of course almost every pizza restaurant openly and legally offers Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) pizza, with artichokes representing spring, olives for summer, mushrooms signifying autumn and finally ham for winter.
Unlike the globe artichoke which is a glorified thistle, the distantly related Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower. The name Jerusalem is rather misleading as these potato like edible tubers are of North American origin, being originally domesticated along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. As with the globe artichoke, Jerusalem artichokes have a mixed reputation. Although they are regarded as a delicacy by many, the fact that the tubers store inulin rather than starch is a mixed blessing. On digestion inulin is broken down to fructose rather than glucose, which is good news for diabetics. Unfortunately, in many individuals inulin digestion results in production of copious amounts of flatulence and this has caused a renaming of the plant to the fartichoke!