The first time I ate an artichoke, it was in my friend Cecily’s tiny carriage house apartment when we were in grad school in Pittsburgh. She taught me to pull the leaves from the core, dip them in butter, and scrape the meat off with my teeth. She had also made lamb, fresh from her family’s farm, and probably another dish I’m not remembering.
What was the occasion? A birthday meal? I don’t know. But any fresh artichoke becomes my madeleine for other 30-year-old memories of that little home and that time in my life. Of the tiny table and the good-kind-of-kitschy furnishings in her small kitchen, the first room you entered at the top of the stairs. And the big old dog she had then. And her blue convertible parked out back. And the summer night she drove me home with the top down and I sat on the back like a beauty queen and practiced my benevolent wave on the sidewalk citizens of Oakland and Bloomfield.
In grad school we were always organizing unusual parties. One spring, Cecily held a cakewalk behind the carriage house. It was a little like musical chairs. She’d play something (I’m picturing a phonograph perched on one of the mismatched chairs that had come outside or been borrowed for the occasion, though it was more likely a boom box) and we’d shuffle in a circle. The music would stop, and whoever stood on or nearest some sidewalk-chalked mark on the concrete would get the choice of one of the remaining cakes. I think I took home an orange Bundt cake with a drizzled lemon glaze.
Aside from the first experience with artichoke, my crispest memory of that little home is the time I went over after she’d had a broken nose or a black eye or some injury to her face. When I got to the top of the stairs, I saw her bandage, and flinched. She commented on it. I still feel bad about that (or do I just remember feeling bad?). I wish I’d looked her in her good eye instead of her bandage.
A few other grad-school memories of regret involve food.
Frozen yogurt, for example. One summer night after a poetry workshop, a classmate who was also writing about a dead mother invited me to TCBY. Back then I was sometimes shy about invitations, so I said I had too much work to do. And I probably meant it. But given the choice again, I’d say yes.
Tea and oranges. Sometimes peeling a navel orange on a gray winter day takes me back to the basement cafeteria of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where my friends Sally and Sue and I often stopped after the ballet class we were taking for fun one winter. My usual post-dance snack was hot tea and an orange. I said something to Sally in teasing, but it was too rough, and it made her mad enough to stop talking to me for a few weeks.
Tortilla chips. That is, the bag of them that I left in the grocery sack behind Liz’s sofa in the apartment on Winebiddle that time she hosted a Halloween costume party and I came as a bag lady. It was part of my props, but also, seeing the snack spread, I realized I should have brought something to dip those chips into. And for some reason, in that nanosecond I reasoned that it was better to appear empty-handed than to just open a lame bag of Tostito’s.
Sometimes the details are discoverable. I contacted Cecily, and she doesn’t remember the incident, let alone my flinching. But she does remember what happened to her eye. “I was reading the Sunday New York Times and flicked the edge of the page against my cornea. I had to go to Shadyside Hospital where they gave me eye drops and I guess bandaged it. I don’t remember the bandage, just the relief when it stopped hurting when I blinked!”
Sally doesn’t remember the bitter orange moment either. But she believes it happened.
Her home was the place we usually went for our potluck dinner music nights. People would bring food and guitars and voices and dates, and we’d eat and talk and sing for hours.
Steve and April Murabito were part of our loose circle (more like an amoeba) of friends. They were there at some of our potluck music nights, and Steve, a poet, was perhaps the first person I’d ever met who was rhapsodic about good food. He loved food, loved it in its particulars, loved to eat it and praise it and talk about its preparation. We joked that it wasn’t a Steve Murabito poem if it didn’t have food in it.
So I got thinking about artichokes and food regrets and grad school while reading his book Communion of Asiago, part of a trilogy about growing up in Oswego, New York.
I don’t know why, for some of us, moments of regret or humiliation imprint the clay of memory more deeply than moments of joy or transcendence. I do know that retelling anything embeds it, too. And sometimes I need to stop and ask, why do I keep retelling this story?
Why even remember the bandage, at the risk of forgetting that night I was a beauty queen on the back of a royal blue MGB?
Why think about that sad sack behind the sofa, and not remember what happened in the center of the room, everyone dancing in our own sweet funny ways?
Why tell about that moment I said something that hurt, and not tell about the afternoon weeks later when, in a wordless meeting of our eyes, all was forgiven?
Here, artichokes are a food of accusation and regret. That doesn’t have to be their only bitter flavor.
Alone with the Artichokes
I can’t believe that of all things
It’s me and these artichokes in the dark,
No early morning light, no last-minute
Preparations, April’s anxious hands
Tucking the tin foil around the rim.
No, these leftover artichokes soak,
The oil separating into small pools
Like sparkling glasses of Galliano.
The vinegar coils into red pockets
Of bitterness that sting the tongue
Like the memory of sour words.
I can’t believe that I’ve taken
The lion’s share of everything
From everyone in my entire life,
But that’s what she said.
Yes, I forgot April’s birthday party
And went to a clambake in Fulton,
Eating all day with pumpkin-gutted men.
Drinking Molson drafts, I forgot the whole thing.
The minutes became dozens of oysters,
Shrimp, clams, friends with our bullshit stories.
And all day, she waited here for me,
Moving in this darkening kitchen,
Stirring these quartered, soaking hearts.
Artichoke for Two
Choose two good artichokes (or one, if you’re not sure you’re going to like it enough to have one to yourself, and you think you and your guest can share nicely). The petals should be tightly packed. A few brown spots are fine.
Trim the thorns off the remaining leaves with kitchen scissors. Cut about an inch off the top with a serrated knife, and cut off all but an inch of the stem. Remove the small petals at the base.
Rinse under running water, top up, to let the water run down between the leaves.
Put a lemon slice, a garlic clove and a bay leaf into two inches of water in a large pot with a steamer basket. Put in the artichokes, cover, and bring water to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer.
Steam for 25 to 45 minutes—long enough that the outer leaves pull off easily.
Artichokes can be served hot or cold. To eat, pull off outer petals one at a time. Dip the part that was attached into melted butter, mayonnaise, or another dipping sauce (honey mustard, aioli, butter and lemon juice, Greek yogurt with scallions, EVOO with your herbs of choice). Pull through teeth to remove the soft, pulpy portion. Discard the remaining petal. Repeat.
Together, ponder other situations in which small gain is worth great effort.
Artichoke for One
Buy a jar of marinated artichoke hearts. Have them handy for salads, pasta dishes, flatbread pizza, and anything else you think they’d enhance. Once in a while, lean over the sink and eat one straight from the jar while thinking about a long-held regret. Conjure a happy counterbalance of memory involving the same person. Turn the water on and rinse the juices of choke and regret down the drain together.
Consider the fall Words You Can Taste writing workshop, which will include an interview with Steve Murabito about his food-laden poetry.