The Brief History of a Very Proud Vegetable

I wish I could go back in time and tell my grandmother Lena as she had son after son (after son after son…) eagerly awaiting a daughter she should’ve laid off the artichokes — even though the folic acid abundant in artichokes were certainly beneficial in pre-natal health.  The delicious vegetable, abundant in Mediterranean culture, is believed to promote the conception of males.

I’ll never be sure if artichokes are why I have four uncles.  However, the artichoke remains to be a pinnacle vegetable in my life.  Okay, being honest, it’s really the only vegetable in my life. Just like my ancient Roman ancestors, I view the delicious vegetable as a delicacy.

Artichokes are flower buds in the sunflower family.  The vegetable made its debut in Naples in the mid 15th century and traveled slowly through the surrounding areas.  The fall of the Roman Empire also meant the brief decline of the artichoke.  But, appropriately enough, the artichoke made their revival during the Renaissance thanks to the Strozzi family.

First written about by Greek philosopher Theophrastus, ancient Romans and Greeks often used the artichoke for medicinal purposes.  With its awesome nutritional value, it’s no surprise.  One head of artichoke has one of the highest amounts of antioxidants of any vegetable!  It’s calorie and fat content is low while it provides about 14% of the recommended daily dietary fiber.

Dietary fiber is that magnificent nutrient that keeps you regular and prevents bad cholesterol. Not to mention it’s a great source of vitamin C which helps your body resist infection, vitamin K which benefits neuronal health and minerals like copper, iron and potassium that all assist in blood health.

But, those nutritional benefits aren’t what made artichokes so popular with the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder who would enjoy his seasoned with honey, vinegar and cumin.  Catherine de Medici in the 1500s wasn’t concerned with anti-oxidants when she obsessively consumed artichokes, making them famous throughout France.  It wasn’t the vitamin C that kept my grandmother munching away at her stuffed artichokes seasoned with garlic, cheese, oregano, olive oil, and homemade breadcrumbs.

It was the juicy, delicious, unique flavor that kept Catherine, Pliny and my grandmother Lena coming back.  Most importantly, it made the six-year-old version of myself interested in vegetables. It tasted so good that even when I learned it was a vegetable (“This?  No way, it tastes too good!  Can I have more, please?”)  I wasn’t deterred.  There’s nothing more convincing than a child asking for veggies.

I can’t wait to prepare artichokes for my future children and feel accomplished when they devour it – nutrients and all.  But, if the leaves still seem too pointy or if they’re still intensely aware of the fact that it’s green I’m going to tell them the story of how artichokes came to be.

According to Aegean legend, the first artichoke was a beautiful young girl named Cynara who lived on the island of Zinari.  A chance meeting with Zeus didn’t phase Cynara – she was strong, confident and absolutely unchanged by the presence of a god.  This, of course, impressed Zeus and he took her back to a place near Olympia, bestowing her with the powers of a goddess.  Cynara, as any young girl would, missed her family and her friends far away in Zinari and snuck away to visit them.  When she returned, Zeus was enraged and threw her back to Earth cursing her to be a vegetable – the glamorous, powerful artichoke.

My grandmother and the daughter she finally did have would be proud to know the mythical girl power roots of their favorite vegetable.