The first artichoke was a woman.
A Greek beauty with fuzzy eyebrows and long black hair, heavy and slick with olive oil. The kind of woman who bathed naked in the ocean froth and loved to feel the grit of wet sand between her toes, the kind of woman who swam in thunderstorms and baked herself to a burnished copper on black rocks in the sun. The kind of woman with many lovers and many daughters. The kind of woman who loved, more than anything, to laugh.
Her name was Cynara.
Zeus was rolling dark clouds over the ocean one day, looking for his brother Poseidon, when he saw her. Cynara was floating on her back, her oiled hair billowing around her face like ink in the water. If you know the stories of Zeus, you’ll know that there was nothing he loved more than frightening pretty women. So he thundered and roared and whipped up the sea, but Cynara wasn’t frightened in the face of all his power. She swam in the waves, joyous and free, laughing up at him, and Zeus fell in love.
Zeus, being the king of the gods, takes what he wants. He’s tricked and coerced and forced hundreds of mortal women into his arms, but Cynara, lovely Cynara, came to him willingly. She saw him for who and what he was. And when he took her, she looked into those divine, thunderbright eyes with her own sharp, earthdark ones, and laughed.
Zeus was so enamoured with his wild, lovely Cynara that he made her into an immortal. He swept her up to Olympus to be his concubine, and whenever jealous Hera was off tending her peacocks and her cattle, Zeus and Cynara would while away the afternoons making love in every conceivable way. She was his favourite. Their thirst for one another was unquenchable.
But Cynara, born mortal, had a tender heart. She missed earth, her lovers, her daughters, her mother. She missed the tangy brine of the ocean. Life on Olympus left her feeling rather bereft. All the trappings of immortality could never begin to live up to the messy, glorious burden of being human. So she began to sneak around.
She went down from Olympus to rub oil into her daughter’s hair, to make stolen love, to break bread with her mother. She brought them honey and mead from the mountain. She swam.
One day, she swam a little too long, and Zeus discovered her betrayal. And we all know that that great philanderer, that great adulterer, well, he wasn’t very good at sharing.
Zeus didn’t have the heart to kill his beloved outright, like he had some of the other unfaithful concubines. And all Cynara wanted, all she asked, was to return to the earth. He agreed, and they made love one last time. At the peak of their passion, he hoisted her up by the waist and hurled her from Olympus.
When she smashed into the dirt, instead of being crushed, she was transformed. Her hair became roots, and her heart became a bulb. Cynara, lovely Cynara, became the first artichoke. She’s wrapped in spines sharp enough to deter the faint of heart. She flowers in a brilliant, primordial purple. If you put in the work for it, her heart is tender and succulent. She’s an aphrodisiac, of course. You eat her with your hands.
I first came across artichokes in a book I had as a girl. It was a book about Pompeii – that doomed city – and it detailed the lives of the dead before the volcano took them. They ate artichokes in Pompeii, and the book showed you how. I’d never even seen an artichoke in real life.
I fixated on the idea – that deliciously pagan act of literally peeling leaves off of a bulb of an unflowered thistle. Eating the heart of a flower. How sumptuous. How erotic.
Eating an artichoke feels life-affirming to me. It’s delicious. It’s incredibly tactile. It’s sexy. And very, very easy to make.
What you’ll need:
2 cloves crushed garlic
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1. Slice the head and stem of your artichokes off. Strip the tough outer leaves. Snip off the sharp edges of the remaining leaves with scissors.
2. Place the artichokes in a steaming basket over a few inches of simmering water in a pot. Squeeze the lemon into the water. Place a lid on top of the pot to create a steam bath. Steam for 25-35 minutes, or until the artichokes are tender and vibrant.
3. Melt butter and stir in the crushed garlic – 1 clove for gentle flavour, 2 for more intense garlicky goodness.
To eat an artichoke, wait until it’s cooled a little. Peel the leaves off as you eat them, and dip the fleshy pale portion into the melted butter. Scrape the fleshy bits off by pulling it through your teeth, and discard the remnants of the petal. When you reach the heart, scrape off the fuzzy filaments (these are quite fun to pluck out by hand, though) to reveal the heart of the artichoke. This is the best part – it’s entirely edible, so dip it in butter and go wild.