Artichoke production is confined to the central California coast, from San Francisco Bay to Santa Barbara County. It seems to prefer a narrow strip of land along the ocean; few plantings are over five miles from the shore. Fields of the gray-green, coarse, lacy foliage of the artichoke present a beautiful sight throughout the winter and sping months as one drives along the Coast....
~ Genevieve A Callahan, Sunset All Western Foods Cook Book, Lane Publishing, 1949
The seasons are turning, and autumn progresses, gently pulling all outward signs of life inward, pulling light to darkness, pulling growth to harvest to fallow - as we move toward winter.
Most of the world's societies include celebrations of thanksgiving during the harvest season. Our own Thanksgiving is not far away.
I had a private little ephiphany of awe and thanksgiving recently, as I drove through the back roads just outside the City of Lompoc. I passed fields full of dark green broccoli. Across the road were rows of light-green and deep-bronze lettuce varieties. Nearby, there were fields of flowers that grew in candy colors of pink, lavendar, cream, and yellow. Other fields were freshly churned, and the rich, black earth was newly exposed to the warm sun and fresh air.
The fields and road and hills, and I, were crowned by a turquoise sky and an autumn sun slung low on the horizon.
I stopped my car by the side of the road, to admire the hundreds of acres of artichoke fields. The heavy blooms were held aloft on long, sturdy stems, growing four or five feet above the earth. Each artichoke looked as though it had been lovingly burnished, and shined, by hand. The rough, lacy, grey - to green leaves twisted back and forth as a little ocean breeze ruffled up the rows. Virtually every artichoke that is served in America comes from this slim bit of Central California coastal land - a narrow 200-mile slice of perfection: the Artichoke Belt of the United States. The southernmost tip of the belt ends, right about here, in this field in Lompoc.
And while groups of men and women worked among the plants, two red tractors gleamed in the fields across the road.
I was humbled. I was flooded with thoughts of thanksgiving at the things I had witnessed that day: beautiful, tender artichokes, and rows and rows of pastel flowers, growing practically side by side; strong, healthy, brown and black cattle roaming the hillsides, and in this season, accompanied by their beautiful new calves; sparkling beaches and the deep, cold Pacific waters off our coastline; autumn grapevines growing along the wavy hills, their leaves turning the landscape ruby and golden.
In that quiet moment, when I was reminded of abundance and growth and harvest and hope - I decided to put artichokes on my holiday menu.
I will serve my favorite artichoke souffle.
Here is that wonderful, simple recipe from the Sunset - All Western Foods Cook Book.
Sunset's Artichoke Souffle
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
1 c milk
3 eggs, separated
8 - 12 freshly-cooked artichoke hearts, chopped fine
Make a cream sauce of butter, flour, and milk, and season well. Beat the egg yolks light, and stir into the cream sauce, then add the chopped artichokes. Lastly, fold in the egg whites, beaten stiff, pour into a buttered baking dish; set this in a shallow pan of hot water, and bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) 30 to 35 minutes. Serve without delay.
In an issue of the San Francisco Call, dated October 22, 1911, in the section entitled, "California Women Who Cook", I found an artichoke appetizer recipe....First, thoroughly wash the artichokes, cooking them until tender. Chill. Before serving, remove the leaves carefully, one by one. Arrange on a platter, and dot each leaf with Hollandaise sauce, and top with a bit of Russian caviar....
If you would like to learn more about California's artichokes, or search through their many fabulous artichoke recipes, visit the California Artichoke Advisory Board website.