A member of the thistle family and a relative of sunflowers, artichokes are an ancient food native to the Mediterranean. Their name is based on the Italian articoclos, derived from the Northern Italian word for pine cone.
Legends about this flower bud-turned-vegetable date back to ancient Greece. For centuries in Europe, only men were allowed to eat artichokes, which were considered an aphrodisiac that could enhance sexual powers.
More than 140 varieties of artichokes are grown in Italy, France and Spain. In California, the familiar green globe also known as the French artichoke accounts for most of the market.
French immigrants brought this variety to Louisiana in 1806 and tried to establish a commercial industry. But the bayou weather was far from perfect for this crop.
Credit Italian immigrants for artichoke's rise in California, which now produces 99.9 percent of the nation's commercial crop.
The first California artichokes were farmed in Half Moon Bay in the 1890s. By 1900, farmers were shipping them east to New York, where they became a high-priced delicacy.
During the 1920s, artichokes were so much in demand in New York that mafioso Ciro "Whitey" Terranova the Artichoke King created a monopoly and terrorized anyone who tried to sell artichokes outside his control. His troops came to California and attacked fields with machetes and threatened produce merchants.
New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia tried to end the "artichoke wars" by declaring possession of the vegetable illegal in his city. But the ban only lasted a week after La Guardia admitted he found artichokes irresistible.
Prompted by artichokes' high demand, a farmer in Salinas Valley switched from sugar beets to artichokes in 1922, and Castroville quickly became the artichoke capital.
About 80 percent of the nation's crop now grows near Castroville, which celebrates with an annual festival. The first artichoke festival queen: Marilyn Monroe.
"Baby artichokes" aren't young: These small artichokes actually grow on the same plant as the big globes, but farther down the stem where they become stunted. They never grow bigger although they're the same age as their larger siblings.
Artichokes fool taste buds: Cynarin, a substance found in artichokes, can make whatever is eaten next taste sweeter. That makes pairing wine and artichokes a little tricky; even dry white wine will taste sweet. Cynarin also is believed to help lower cholesterol.