The first time I ate a fresh artichoke was the night my roommate Ellen prepared them for dinner in our San Francisco apartment. That was nearly 40 years ago, when I was ever so young and living with Ellen and three other roommates on Fulton Street across from Golden Gate Park. The five of us each pitched in $5 per week for groceries. We rotated the shopping and cooking. So every five weeks, I would shop and cook dinner every night for a week, and every 5 weeks Ellen, Maggie, Claire and Barbara would do the same.
Ellen was the oldest in a large family and knew how to prepare easy, inexpensive meals. She could turn a box of macaroni and cheese into dinner in 8 minutes and she could whip up a mean skillet lasagna using half the recommended amount of hamburger meat. On the weeks when she shopped, we usually got change back from our $5 contribution towards groceries.
Ellen was thrifty and proud of it. She owned an old Opel Kadett and I often bribed her with gas money (not a big deal at 36 cents a gallon) to give me a ride to Petrini’s or Safeway so I wouldn’t have to take the bus. She’d wait in her car while I pushed my cart down the aisles waiting for inspiration. My mother’s cooking revolved around better cuts of beef from the steer we put in the freezer each year and the backyard fryers we butchered as needed. I was accustomed to real milk and potatoes, not the powdered stuff in a box. Inevitably I overspent, exceeding our $25 budget and driving Ellen nuts.
One Saturday Ellen and I decided to drive down to Carmel just for fun. It was on that day that I encountered farm fresh artichokes for the first time. We left the city and headed south through the farm land around Salinas and Monterey. Along the way we saw roadside stands selling artichokes. I mentioned that I had never tasted a fresh artichoke.
Ellen came to a screeching stop at the stand we were passing. She told me that artichokes were her favorite vegetable, but they were kind of expensive so she never bought them.
“I’ll cook them if you buy them,” Ellen suggested. “My treat,” I said as I gave the man a dollar bill in exchange for a sack of artichokes – maybe 10 or 12 in the bag.
That night Ellen steamed the artichokes and served them with melted butter and mayonnaise for dipping. I learned how to pull the leaves off and scrape the meat with my teeth. I thought artichokes were fabulous. From that day forward I was a fan and have cooked and served them ever since. My sons just love them.
This summer I’ve become an artichoke grower. The three plants I purchased from The Dutch Gardener a few months ago are producing artichokes left and right. When I went online to find out a little more about artichokes, I was surprised to discover that nearly 100% of our nation’s artichoke crop is grown in California.
I’m excited about harvesting and eating my homegrown artichokes — just as soon as I get rid of the disgusting infestation of black aphids on the plants. That’s another fact I discovered while doing research: artichokes are aphid magnets.
So as I stand in my garden carefully spraying artichokes with warm water laced with dish soap, I remember dear Ellen and my introduction to artichokes, and I remember San Francisco Saturdays and spontaneous drives down to Carmel. And for just a moment, aphids aside, I feel 20 years younger and on the verge of discovery again.
Reach Michele Thomas, The Daily Triplicate’s publisher, at 464-2141, or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.