There have been all sorts of wacky hijinks and shenanigans going on over at Fragments from Floyd, leading up to the fact that Fred has given everyone a writing assignment, and is, furthermore, collecting assignments over at Fragments. It should also be noted that Fred’s being kind of a scary hardass about this, and isn’t allowing anyone to claim that their Dog has Eaten their Hard Drive, etc. The writing assignment is as follows:
Is there a food or dish that you detested as a child that you like as an adult? Can you pinpoint the moment when you gave that food a second chance? How, in general, has your sense of taste changed? Think about the kinds of words that we use to describe taste — sweet, sour, tangy, spicy.
As a child, the presence of individual artichokes on the dinner table always seemed to me to be somewhat of a personal affront. There would be three of them — one artichoke placed smack dab in the center of each of our dinner plates — presented as the evening’s entree, with dollops of Mayonnaise (or, to be more accurate, Miracle Whip), for dipping, served to the side in delicate Japanese rice bowls. My mother would cook them up in her newly-aquired pressure cooker, which at that time seemed like the most “Space Age” and Jetson-esque of home kitchen appliances. I didn’t get it. I was being made to eat what was obviously a thistle. There were thorns, sharp thorns, on the end of each leaf and the process of scraping off a thin rime of flesh from each leaf with one’s teeth certainly didn’t seem to me to yield, even cumulatively, anything that even remotely qualified as actual sustenance.
And like I said, I didn’t get it. Did we have to eat overgrown thistles for dinner because we were poor? (My mother certainly made a big production of frequently noting how my piano lessons and ballet lessons were were practically bankrupting them, although from a more adult perspective, I don’t quite see how this would be entirely possible.) I would go on to resentfully contemplate my classmates joyously eating Happy Meals at McDonalds like the families on T.V. commercials . . . I myself had never eaten a Happy Meal nor actually been to a McDonalds, so I was not only inextricably convinced that this was what everyone else was doing for dinner but that they were happy doing it.
And it would begin to seem that the artichokes were yet another way by which my parents were foisting their eccentricities upon me . . . making me stranger and weirder than I already was to start with, and thus opening me up to further childhood ridicule. I mean, wasn’t it bad enough that I was always taking flack for being half-Japanese, overly brainy, hopelessly geeky, and inappropriately attached to my best friend to the extent that I was constantly being called a lesbian? Not to mention the fact that I had to wear orthopedic shoes, weirdly unfashionable glasses due to extreme myopia (my father picked the glass frames out of a catalogue . . . he said they were “cute” . . . and quite frankly, I think they reminded him of the glasses the Japanese girls who worked as typists at Camp Ojima in the 1950’s were wearing) and, sin of sins, highwater pants during an era of bell bottoms, due to the fact that my mother always sewed my pants way too short because she was constantly worried that I would “trip and fall” otherwise.
This was a time in my life when, more than anything else, I thought that I just wanted to be normal, for a change, whatever that meant . . . normal enough to “pass,” at any rate, and my parents weren’t helping. And while the artichokes were not, gastronomically speaking, all that revolting (even though the part about artichokes being a thistle, and the attendant bunches of thistle down seemed somewhat outre to me) it was what the artichokes represented that I found particularly troublesome. (Admittedly, though, I used to find Miracle Whip profoundly distasteful. The combination of a sour/tangy vinegar taste with more of a sweet/creamy flavor and texture just seemed wrong . . . upsetting, unnatural, and wrong).
Artichoke Night at our house would inevitably bring out my mother’s whimsy, dreamy, philosophical side. Sooner or later, amongst the carnage of tooth-marked leaves and thistle fluff, she would be moved to ask, “Who you think was first person who going to eat an artichoke? Do you think maybe they starving somewhere and there’s nothing else to eat, so they going to try it?” She might also go on to add, “This is so-called ‘finger food.’ This good diet food because take so long to eat that get bored and lose interest after awhile so not so hungry.” (My mother’s dinner table hypothesizing also included observing which item on the plate everyone would eat first at Thanksgiving and basing large-scale characterizations and preferences on this selection. “See! I guess right! You always eat stuffing first thing! I can tell what you like by what you eat first. You just like your American grandma.” And did she mean that she knew what kind of a person I was like by what I was eating first, or that she could tell what my favorite food was? But here’s the thing . . . on a given plate, I never eat my favorite food first . . . I start off with my least favorite, and progressively work my way up to the item that I think is the most delicious, saving the best for last. So the question is . . . did my mother think that stuffing was my favorite food, or my least favorite food at Thanksgiving?)
Over the years I have become comfortable with my own strangeness, my Otherness, and have come to understand that normalcy is an illusion, and a delusion . . . that the emotional, psychological, political, and spiritual costs of attempting to attain this illusion/delusion are very, very high. Particularly if one is a bi-racial, lesbian womyn. It seems significant that all of my favorite foods of the vegetal variety these days are a bit off-the-beaten-track: artichokes, brussel sprouts, okra, to name a few.
About a year ago I was in the local grocery store, browsing through the vegetable section, when I saw the small display of early spring artichokes. Although I had eaten pickled artichoke hearts, or ordered any number of dishes that incorporated artichoke hearts with much relish over the years, I hadn’t actually eaten an entire artichoke since I left my parents’ house. They were strangely and compellingly beautiful, and I hungered for them. I went home and consulted The Joy of Cooking to figure out how to cook an artichoke, since I didn’t have a pressure cooker and really had no concept how to prepare them otherwise. Then I immediately procured a vegetable steamer off eBay, and a week later I was eating artichokes for dinner again, and found that they had become a reminder of home . . . a Comfort Food.
There is a wonderful movie called Antonia’s Line, in which one of the central women characters asks the pretty schoolteacher who has come over to tutor her gifted daughter, “Have you ever eaten an artichoke?” She then goes on to explain that the artichoke is considered a great delicacy, that the leaves can be dipped in a vinaigrette, and as she describes how to eat an artichoke, it soon becomes clear that the sensuality of her description has turned into the language of seduction . . . the women fall in love. It is a hilarious scene, and also unspeakably sexy. And yes, in addition to being a Comfort Food, perhaps the aritchoke is also an unexpectedly erotic vegetable, as well. It is, after all, not only a thistle, but also a flower. Consider scraping off the delicate, nutty-flavored meat of the petals with your teeth as you pluck them off, one by one. Consider the hidden inner layer of flimsy purple petals, delicate and translucent as tissue paper. Consider the soft sticky clumps of pale gold fur that protect the heart. And yes, the heart . . . there is the soft, green, creamy heart.