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CYNARA, THE WOMAN WHO BECAME THE ARTICHOKE

The globe artichoke enjoys a long history of both lore and cooking preparation. Earliest cultivation was thought to have occurred in the Mediterranean. A Greek myth evokes the lovely story that the first artichoke was a woman of surpassing beauty named Cynara with whom Zeus was enamored. Zeus decided to make her a goddess but Cynara so missed her home that she would sneak back to earth from Mount Olympus to visit her family. This infuriated Zeus, who exacted a rather awful retribution by turning her into the first artichoke.


In a way, the myth is indicative of the artichoke’s nature. Only a tiny part of the vegetable is eaten. The exterior is hard and inflexible, even when cooked, and one must peel off each leaf to get to the “heart of the plant.” A tiny amount of the bottom of the leaf is often dipped in sauces like mayonnaise, before the teeth scrape off the flesh of the plant. The heart, as well, needs to be separated from its hard thistle bottom to be edible. Thus the artichoke takes a bit of work for the eater, just as Cynara represented more work then Zeus wished to bestow on her.


In about 800 CE, two groups of Moors are thought to be responsible for cultivation of the artichoke in Sicily and Spain. The word derives from Arabic rather than Greek, suggesting the Moors may have cultivated the vegetable first. The artichoke was enjoyed throughout Europe, showing a resurgence of popularity in the Renaissance.

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