I remember being at a long table, in a little plastic chair, waiting. In front of me, a glass bowl of butter, already cooling, the yellow separating from the rest. It looked a little gross, but tempting, too. I waited, with all the rest of my class, for Mrs. Zee to bring the me the next step. And she did. She placed before me a plate of cooked artichoke leaves. Green, steam rising off them.
I had never eaten an artichoke before. I had never even seen an artichoke before.
And each leaf looked a little like a spiny cactus: daunting, but tempting.
At a certain point, our quiet-spoken teacher urged us all to pick up a leaf. My fingers grabbed one, then dropped it. It was damp, a little spongy, but the prickles tickled my hand. At seven, you stay as far away from “weird” as you can. “Ew, gross,” I heard some other kids say. And I thought so too, but I hesitated before I said it. Because I was fascinated. How could this be a food? And how many other foods existed that I lived in blissful ignorance of their place in the world?
Mrs. Zee quieted the querulous cries, saying, “Try it. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll have tried it.” And so I dipped a damp piece of artichoke in the waiting bowl of butter and put it in my mouth. At first, I only tasted the butter, salty and greasy. I liked butter, so I was willing to keep going. She told us to bite down, then drag our teeth up the leaf. It felt surprisingly thick, a little crunch along the edges, and sharp with taste. But mostly, I remember the feeling of it all coming away in my mouth. The sensory pleasure of scraping the flesh off that leaf with my tongue. The pleasure of tasting something I had never tasted before.
I kept dipping, more and more leaves, until I had eaten them all. Other kids in the class left off after one leaf. Some complained that this was just too gross. But I kept going.
And I haven’t stopped yet.
I don’t know what possessed a second-grade teacher in Southern California in the 70s to prepare fresh artichoke leaves for the seven-year-olds in her class. But I’m glad she did. This is about the only memory I have of being in Mrs. Zee’s class. But it’s enough. The potency of the taste, the drag with my teeth, the ineffable pleasure of artichoke in butter is enough to fill an entire year of my life.
This memory rose to my mind last night, when I found my Pioneer Organics box of fruit and vegetables on my doorstep. When I opened it up, I found two artichokes inside. I pass by artichokes in the grocery store, rarely considering them. Too complicated, I thought. Too ungainly. But having them in my hand changed my mind. And then I remembered this, which hovered on the edges of my memory. And I knew I had to make something with artichokes tonight.
One of the many blessings of this celiac diagnosis–and they are manifold, believe me–is that I’m forced to try new foods I would never have eaten before. Amaranth. Ume plum vinegar. Brown rice flour. And slowly, I am returning to gluten-free foods I once knew, long ago. Like artichokes.
ARTICHOKE RAGOUT WITH ROASTED POTATOES
from Chez Panisse Vegetables, p. 8
Alice Waters is one of my heroes. In the early 1970s, driven by her personal beliefs and love of food, she opened Chez Panissein Berkeley, California. It’s still going strong, thirty years later. It’s a gourmet restaurant (voted one of the best restaurants in the world, many times) with its roots in farmers’ markets, local growers, and food that tastes like food. One day, I’ll eat there, when I’ve saved up enough money. But in the meantime, at least I can cook from Alice Waters’ books, some of the best in publication.
Here’s her simple recipe for artichokes and potatoes. I’m going to try it tonight.
“Cut new potatoes, such as fingerlings or Bintjes, into chunks the size of a small thumb and boil in salty water until tender. Clean and quarter about the same quantity of very small artichokes. Soften several small spring onions in a saucepan for a minute in olive oil and butter over a high flame. Add the artichokes and a splash of water, season, cover, and stew over a low flame until the artichokes are tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover and add the potatoes, a light drizzle of fruity olive oil, and some chopped parsley. Continue cooking a few minutes longer, until the liquid has reduced to a silky emulsion that coats the vegetables.”