When you’re 8 years old, play time is serious business. After several hours hard at work, the words “time for dinner” can evoke many emotions. Anticipation, excitement, and occasionally fear. The latter was the case on this particular day, as I heard my mother calling for me over the backyard wall to the neighborhood park my friends and I frequently played in.
I immediately became filled with dread as I slowly and with great protest, made my way to the park side of the wall to begin my best impression of spider-man. Scaling the seven foot, cinder block wall with the skillful expertise learned by years of climbing countless trees, boulders, and anything else that dared to test my resolve, the acrid stench of something “healthy” violated my nostrils before my feet even landed on the familiar ground I called home.
Because it was the middle of summer, we always left the sliding glass door open, with the screen door being the only barrier between the outside world and Mom’s kitchen, so that her voice would carry over the wall and to my ears without her having to step away from the meal she was preparing. “Aww crumbs,” I thought, “This is gonna be a bad one.”
You see, earlier that morning, before heading off to an eagerly awaited Saturday of playing catch with Dad, soccer with pals, and-who-could-climb-closest-to-the-squirrels-in-the-treetops (which I often won), while enjoying my usual “weekends only” breakfast of the kinds of cereal with more than its fair share of added sugar, my mother sat down next to me with a serious expression on her face. “Tonight, you will be trying… a new vegetable.” My heart sank. That sentence almost never ended well.
I say almost because there was, after all the occasional, pleasant surprise of a green bean casserole, sweet potatoes with butter and cinnamon, and even celery filled with cream cheese or my favorite, peanut butter. “Not this time,” I thought, as I kicked off my shoes and walked through the screen door, scowling as my nose hunted for that which had offended it only moments before. Nothing came into view except the familiar, iceberg lettuce salad with the bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch sitting in its usual spot near the center of the table. “Yes!” I thought, momentarily convincing myself that the foul smell had come from my friend’s house next door.
I washed up, sat down, and patiently waited for mom’s famous roasted chicken with mashed potatoes to be set down on the table. Well, it started out fine. Chicken, check. Potatoes, check… Then it appeared.
“What in the name of ‘vegetables are for rabbits and horses’ is that?!” I sputtered. I stared at it in disbelief until tears started welling up in my eyes. “Did I do something wrong? Are you really gonna make me eat a cactus?!” I asked in horror. Dad and Mom both let out a giggle at my shock as Dad gently said, “It’s just an artichoke.” “An arti-what?” I said. “Look at it! It’s green and has thorns, it’s a cactus!” After quite a bit of coaxing, as well as the promise of an extra cookie for dessert, I followed their instructions on how to safely consume the intimidating monstrosity, by peeling a leaf off (don’t farm animals eat leaves?!), dipping the end in a bit of mayonnaise, then carefully scraping my teeth against the pulpy, bottom part of the leaf without biting through it.
In the minutes that followed, I vaguely remember the world around me. After peeling off another couple of leaves and repeating the dipping and tasting process (only for verification of my condemnation at being forced to eat something that one tends to try and avoid), according to my parents, I seemed to go into a kind of dream state until at long last, I reached the end of the leaves and now stared blankly at what I thought resembled the business end of an octopus.
“Now comes the best part,” Mom triumphantly stated, glowing with pride at the overwhelming culinary victory she and Dad had just accomplished. After cutting away the thistle and spindly bits of inner, fragile leaves with the kind of skill that to me was on par of a samurai warrior, Mom handed me the fork and said, “Now try the heart.” The heart?? Wait! Is this a vegetable or a little green, thorny alien?! Though by this point, after just having had such a surprisingly delicious experience, I found my bravery and chomped down a big bite. Fast forward over forty years, and the artichoke is still one of, if not my favorite vegetable in the world.
Venice’s garden island, Sant’Erasmo, has been the city’s main source of many types of produce for over 750 years. Among these is the Castraure, the violet baby artichoke. Specifically, the farmers snip off the first artichoke bloom which ideally makes each plant grow an additional 18-20 artichokes. This act of cutting is known as castraure, or castrating. Though the artichoke may be my favorite vegetable, I can honestly say that the term used to describe this beautiful Venetian delicacy is my least favorite name of a food. Any food, for that matter!
The season for castraure runs between early May and mid June. There is even a day long festival to celebrate this prized vegetable, though the exact date varies from year to year, because it depends solely on the exact stage of ripeness the artichoke plant is in. Nothing but perfection will do for the high level of quality Venetian farmers, restaurant chefs, and residents alike demand. Castraure are prepared in numerous different ways, some favorites being battered and deep fried, steamed and then drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of cracked sea salt, served mixed in with pasta, and even often eaten raw.
It is for the love of all things artichoke, especially castraure, that this time of year is and always will be one of my favorite times to live and eat in this incredible city.
Until next time,