Slowly and intently, I remove each outside layer, leaf by leaf. It becomes more tender and meaty towards the center. I feel the flesh slide off when just lightly pressed against my bottom teeth. My fingers move away from my mouth as I welcome the foreign, earthy flesh in. Toss the inedible portion of the leaf aside, I’m not interested in what I cannot consume. Take a moment between each bite to enjoy that strong and refreshing aftertaste. When I get to that circular base, I scrape the hairs away to make a clean surface. All that work and the tease of flesh along the way are about to pay off. Finally, I bite into that beefy heart and savor every bit of the velvety richness. I go all the way to the stem. I deserve it; I’ve worked long and hard for it.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get to that truth in my own heart. Moving toward that tender part that has always existed, long before I hid behind my layers of intellect, strong opinions and impossibly high expectations. Artichokes eat at who I really am, underneath it all, a soft heart longing to be consumed by another.
My early outside layers were formed growing up in Santa Cruz, California, thirty miles from the “Artichoke Capital of the World.” My first experience was with artichokes of the fried variety.
My mom’s guilty pleasure was fried mushrooms covered in batter, from a salty old man who owned a fish and chips joint in the center of our mall food court. When I took one, I discovered a game of roulette. The hot water locked in the mushroom oozed out with an innocent bite, burning my soft pink mouth. Eventually, at age five, I got a dish all my own from this man at the mall: fried artichoke hearts dipped in cool Ranch dressing.
Artichokes can be paired down for the inexperienced with creamy mayonnaise, garlicky aioli, rich white dressings, drawn butter, lemon or straight vinegar. No matter how fatty or strong their acidic partners are, the artichoke’s delicate presence matters most. This was a quality that I always admired and what I took with me through girlhood to womanhood.
In grade school, I got used to eating them steamed, because fried was only for the mall, and healthy food was for home. I was the person that my mom relied on to test the doneness. I reached in the pot with an oven mitt and a metal spoon, and watched the spoon steam up as I carefully pulled out a leaf. I imagined it was like going fishing. I blew to cool it down and then turned it upside down as I scraped the hot, edible part against my teeth. “Almost done,” I’d say, thinking of myself as an expert on my vegetable. Perhaps I learned this from cooking shows. I had the tendency to act like an expert even when I was clueless.
My mom, who always held her naiveté closer to her heart, said she was confused when it came to eating whole artichokes. She could handle the outer leaf part, but was unclear on the delicate heart operation. After she opened it, it was my duty to take a spoon and clear the hairs away. I handed it back with excitement. This is it, the moment you have been eating towards, I thought: the heart. “Try it, mom.”
The heart is fibrous and rich and leaves an aftertaste that tastes like the most refreshing matcha green tea. It makes me want to let out a long “Ahhhh” exhaling sigh. It’s the kind of sound where you need to have just sipped hot tea to do it justice. Eating the heart is actually a release of pleasure. I hold the artichoke aftertaste for as long as possible, not wanting to pollute it. After I down a glass of water, a sweet taste comes to the forefront.
As someone who is always thinking of my next meal while I am currently eating, consuming an artichoke slows me down. With an artichoke heart, I go to that quiet place in my own heart where there are no next steps to count. Only the moment is left and it is warm and sweet. I have returned to the source. The know-it-all little girl and the woman excited and anxious about her future cease to exist. I am left with truth and an aftertaste that breeds a new life like a deep breath or a heart beat.
All I have ever wanted is to leave a presence, and artichokes achieve that. Touch a raw artichoke and its thorns on the outer layer may prick you. And even if you escape that attack, try accidentally putting your finger to your mouth. When the raw residue comes forward and takes over the tastebuds; a twinkle of admiration shines through the bitter surrender.
After college, I learned that artichokes are one of the few foods nearly impossible to pair with wine. When you couple it most white wines a metallic taste is formed. A vegetable with metal barriers is respectable; unlike those promiscuous fruits wanting nothing more than to quickly move through you and spread their seeds.
My own heart has strong barriers of its own. I still have not met anyone worthy of my whole heart. Sure, people have removed my outside layers and perhaps tasted bits of my flesh, but no one has consumed the full essence of me, the innocent and all knowing one at the core, open for total consumption. My whole heart has only ever been visited in moments on my journey alone in stillness and meditation and not yet with another. I am saving this whole-heartedness for a soul mate that I have yet to encounter.
In the meantime, the artichoke is still mine. The fresh ones in my kitchen are ready to be expertly cooked and a hefty supply of hearts soak in vinegar in a jar, my own personal sacrament.
Carina Ost is a food and memoir writer living in Miami Beach, Florida. She has contributed regularly to the food section of SF Weekly and Miami New Times and was recently published on Ravishly. Carina is always seeking the next great meal, story and exotic adventure. Follow her journey @CarinaOst.