Giant Artichoke

On November 14, 2013 · 5 Comments

I spent a few summers in Monterey, California when I was a kid. We’d land at the airport in San Francisco and drive south, cutting across the mouth of the agriculturally-oriented Salinas Valley before heading down towards the Monterey Peninsula. Oftentimes we’d stop in Castroville along the way for a special treat.

The Route Through Castroville

It’s important to understand that Castroville billed itself as the "Artichoke Center of the World." We’d stop just off the highway at a place called the Giant Artichoke for one of their more famous delicacies, deep fried artichokes. I learned at an early age that anything could be improved with a layer of batter and a few minutes bubbling in a fryer. Those were some good eats. They probably weren’t the healthiest food option available although that never crossed my mind at the time.

GiantArtichoke-02 by TrishaLyn, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

I jumped onto Street View and — surprise! — the Giant Artichoke was still there after all those years.

Castroville existed long before it became an Artichoke Center. The local Chamber of Commerce traced its founding to 1863, making Castroville the second oldest town in Monterey County. However its relationship with artichokes have long since eclipsed whatever other history it may have ever experienced.

In addition to the Giant Artichoke, Castroville serves as the home of the California Artichoke Advisory Board and sponsors an annual Artichoke Festival. They also crown an Artichoke Queen. Artichoke royalty may not sound all that impressive although the first Queen crowned in 1948 went on to slightly greater fame. She was Norma Jean Baker when she ascended the throne, later Marilyn Monroe.

Artichokes were native to areas around the Mediterranean. Most cultivation still takes place there: Italy led world production with nearly a half million metric tonnes in 2010. While California produced "nearly 100% of the U.S. crop, and about 80% of that [was] grown in Monterey County," national output equaled only about forty thousand metric tonnes. Maybe Castroville should change its name to reflect a smaller geographic footprint?

What about artichokes in the U.S. Upper Midwest?

Artichoke Township, Minnesota

I consulted the Geographic Names Information System and discovered a handful of populated Artichokes in the Upper Midwest, which confounded me. Why would there be an artichoke anything there? The first two instances involved a hamlet and township in Big Stone County, Minnesota. The second was a township in Potter County, South Dakota, just a few miles away from the Obscure Gettysburg. That was an odd coincidence although I found nothing further about South Dakota’s Artichoke Township other than its location (map).

Minnesota’s Artichoke Township and its similarly-named embedded hamlet offered a tantalizing etymological clue buried deep within the Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society (Google eBook), 1920, pp 53-54:

Artichoke township whose first settler came in May 1869 received its name from the former Artichoke lake now drained which was five miles long stretching from section 11 south to section 36. This name was probably translated from the Sioux name of the lake referring to the edible tuber roots of a species of sunflower Helianthus tuberosus which was much used by the Indians as food called pangi by the Sioux abundant here and common or frequent throughout this state.

I noticed two things immediately. Somebody refilled Artichoke Lake and I had no idea what Helianthus tuberosus represented. I didn’t really care about the history of Artichoke Lake so I focused on Helianthus tuberosus. The Intertubes told me that it was a binomial name for the Jerusalem artichoke. Oddly, the plant had nothing to do with Jerusalem and wasn’t an artichoke, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and numerous other references. That source also labeled it a "nuisance" and a "serious weed problem" even though Helianthus tuberosus was native to the area. Subsequently, Canada has no Artichoke place names.

From the Mailbag

Reader "Splen" sent 12MC a message with what may be the most ham-fisted abbreviation ever stamped on a road sign.

Pgh Intrntl

"Pgh Intrntl" was the best they could manage?

(and to all readers who have contributed recently — thank you, and don’t worry I’ll get to those; I have a bit of a backlog).

On November 14, 2013 · 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Giant Artichoke”

  1. Craig says:

    Well, one online poll suggests that Pittsburgh is typically abbreviated as “PGH”:

    I do agree though that “Intrntl” is weird. 🙂

  2. John of Sydney says:

    The Wikipedia entry “Australia’s big things” has a list of Australia’s contribution to this “art form”
    Wasn’t until I saw the list that I realised how many I hadn’t seen – better get on the job!

  3. Jasper says:

    I’ve always thought that Geo Was Mem Pkwy was a rather odd way to shorten the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Why not GW Parkway, which is what everybody calls it?

    View Larger Map

    Also, the destination ‘Washington’ under there is rather dubious. You could ‘Washington’ on pretty much every exit to the inside of the Beltway. And while the GW Parkway does go through the District on Columbia Island, it’s not really where anybody wants to be.

  4. KCJeff says:

    Thanks for the memories. I spent 2 childhood summers on the Monterey Peninsula iin the mid ’70s. My favorite treat was going to Castroville for deep fried artichoke hearts.I had nevet even heard of an artichoke before then. Made a pit stop there again in 1994 when driving the Pacific coast hwy. I wonder if they deliver? 😉

  5. David says:

    I didn’t realize The Giant Artichoke was that old! My wife and I ate there on our wedding anniversary in 2009, on our way to another wedding in the Bay Area, and then a road trip designed to explore parts of Northern California she’d never visited, such as the Redwoods, Lake Tahoe, and Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic National Parks. Along the way we visited some odd places that I had only previously learned about – the black sand beach on California’s Lost Coast in Shelter Cove (which is the least developed stretch of coastline in California due to the 101 veering inland), and Trinity County, which is a rare county in California with no freeways or traffic lights. I’m not a county counter – I couldn’t even name all the counties in California, much less make the time to visit them all when I’m still only halfway to reaching all 50 states – but that one county seemed like something I needed to see for myself, and the drive from Eureka to Redding via Weaverville was quite scenic.

    P.S. I arrived at this article after searching to see if you’d ever mentioned the city of Weed, California. Certainly that’s worth a mention someday. There’s a classic image that’s been floating around the internet for ages now, where a guy struggles to choose between College and Weed.

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