Saturday, June 6, 2015

Why Don’t They Just Leave Things Alone–Part One

When I was a little kid my little sister and I were having dinner with our mother.

My father, as was frequently the case, was in the land of the missing for that particular meal.

I must have been five and my sister must have been three.

Her name was Annie.

Since she has been dead for 63 years that must have been a long time ago.

So it is odd that I would remember it.

And I probably wouldn’t have remembered it except for a peculiarity of the menu that evening.

Our mother was eating something that looked as if it had come out of science fiction.

It was sort of cone shaped and was made up of an apparently endless number of funny shaped things.

She would – interspersed with the rest of the food she was eating – take one of the things and dip it in something and then bite off a miniscule part of the thing and then put the rest of the thing in a big bowl put on the table especially for the deposit of the things after they had been bitten.

We had seen her indulge in this odd practice on other occasions but the thought of asking to try whatever it was had never occurred to us.

And our mother never offered to let us try.

Then came the evening I am remembering.

For some reason one or the other or both of us asked to try to dip one of the things and bite it and see what they were all about.

It turned out that this was what our mother had always planned.

In later life when this story came up she would just say that she knew we would never have liked artichokes if we had been given one to try ourselves, so she just indulged frequently in her love of the thistles and let us watch and draw our own conclusions.

On that particular occasion the conclusion we drew was that we loved the things and our mother was left without any artichoke to eat – except the heart; she didn’t tell us about that until she had removed the residual leaves, cut out the thistle stuff and wolfed down the butter dripping sections of the base of the flower all herself.

From then on we were a three artichoke table.

Now to the point.

For years artichokes were a seasonal thing, like pomegranates; they would suddenly appear in large volume, would quickly go to three for a dollar and would stay around for a few weeks and then would be gone until the next “season” arrived.

They were always from Castroville and they had thorns on each leaf; and the base of each leaf had a large fleshy place that when dipped in melted butter or mayonnaise was just the right amount for a bite.  One knew it was time to take the rest of the leaves off and cut the thistle stuff off and cut the heart up into dipping sized pieces when that fleshy base  of the inner leaves became too small to eat.  And, if one knew one’s range well enough, those artichokes could always be cooked to the exact degree of tender doneness in some known number of minutes – pour in the water; pour in the vinegar; put the range on high; set the timer for fifteen minutes; turn the heat to simmer after fifteen minutes; and after another twenty five minutes the artichoke was perfect, including the heart.

And the flavor of the things was always life enhancing.

Somebody sometime back decided to change all of that.

The first sign was that artichokes seemed to always be in the markets; they had lost their seasonality.

The next sign – part of the first, actually – was that they became three dollar apiece items.

Coincident with that was the fact that they were never labeled simply as artichokes any more; they were jumbo artichokes.

And they were not beautiful cone shaped collections of somewhat loosely aggregated thorn tipped leaves any more; they were instead round, tightly compressed collections of thornless leaves; and the leaves were not shaped like a slightly rounded spear tip any more, they were sort of round and nondescript; and their fleshy bases were not very fleshy and not very substantial.

And trying to cook one was impossible.

No amount of time would yield a leaf that when pulled gently yielded with a little resistance; this was the time honored test of whether the artichoke was read to eat or not.

The jumbo three dollar variety would jealously hold their leaves no matter how hard the pull, leaving the cook with a never ending pot with a boiling artichoke waiting hopefully for the pull test to indicate that the thing had finally become edible.

Ultimately the never ending boiling pot would induce a hopeful state of mind in the cook that would yield a leaf that “seemed” to yield, leading one to conclude that the artichoke was ready to eat.

But that was always the gateway to disappointment: when set on the table the rest of the leaves would barely yield; the flesh that they yielded was not of a size or quality of taste any where near that of the artichokes of yore; and the heart, if one persisted through all that leafy disappointment was mush.

So why didn’t “they” just leave a perfect thing to be perfect?

Why did they have to improve it so we couldn’t afford it and didn’t want to eat it if we could?

Why did “they” make such a thing a year round staple of the produce counter?

I am in the question business; I am not in the answer business.

However I find myself asking the same questions about peaches, pears, strawberries and raspberries.

I am expecting any day to need to start asking those questions about avocados.

Recently during a three or four week span my local Safeway had artichokes just like the ones Annie and my mother and I ate on that evening so many years ago.

I didn’t think too much about it except to be exceptionally happy to be able to join Marcel Proust in quite a number of his moments as I ate an inordinate number of artichokes for those three or four weeks.

And then they were gone.

I guess they must have been seasonal.

I often take the little sticky labels off of avocados or organic apples or whatever I eat that has those little stickers.

I don’t know why I do it; it is sort of a ritual; and I always stick them on a loose piece of paper laying around in my cooking area (I organize my life on sheets of lined yellow notebook paper folded into fourths, so there are always pieces available for sticking the labels on).

It had turned out that these artichokes that I had been savoring had those little sticky labels on them, so there quickly became a quarter folded yellow sheet with several labels on it.

One day after the artichokes had made their apparently seasonal disappearance from the market I was cleaning the kitchen and decided to recycle the yellow label bearer.

Before final disposition, I took a look at what was printed.

And it gave me hope for a better future.

heirloom artichoke

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