Photos courtesy of John and Marie Odello
One family’s tale of a Monterey Bay icon
BY LISA CRAWFORD WATSON
That anyone first found it edible is a testament to curiosity, persistence, risk. By all appearances, the artichoke is an anachronism, a prehistoric plant whose thorny plates of armor protect its vulnerable heart until it dries from the inside out and releases a spiky purple blossom. To anyone who hasn’t tried it—or ever imagined eating a thistle—it can be confounding.
And yet, when dragged through mayonnaise, yogurt or warm, drawn butter, each sharp, fibrous leaf becomes a delicacy; once they are pulled through the teeth, leaving behind only that which is soft, succulent, tender, tasty and melting in the mouth, even the uninitiated and the skeptical come to understand why the artichoke is considered an aristocrat of the vegetable kingdom.
Although not native to this area or even the United States, the artichoke’s longevity in this region’s rich, sandy loam and cool, coastal climate; its popularity on local menus, both trendy and traditional; and its abundance here make the artichoke one of the iconic plants of the Monterey Peninsula. They thrive throughout our local foodshed, which produces as much as 80% of the artichokes grown in the U.S.
No one knows just when artichokes, which come into season in March, arrived on this continent. Some accounts place their introduction in the 19th century, by French immigrants in Louisiana and Spanish settlers in California. Others say they were brought to Colonial Williamsburg in 1720 to indulge aristocratic immigrants from Europe.
Artichokes had already reached Castroville on the northern peninsula by the time Battista Odello brought his bride, Josefina, from Northern Italy to Carmel in 1924 with the promise of prosperity through artichoke farming at the mouth of the Carmel Valley.
Odello leased, ultimately, 340 acres from the Thomas Oliver family, whose coastal river-bottom lands were bisected by Highway 1 just south of Carmel. There he and 17 partners planted artichoke slips cut from Castroville crops, and six months later brought in their first harvest by hand. Eventually his two sons, Emilio and Bruno, entered the operation, taking the helm in 1945. Ten years hence, they purchased the property.
By 1964, Bruno’s son John, armed with a degree in agribusiness from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, had joined the family business that had shaped his growing-up years.
“My family was the first to farm artichokes in Carmel Valley,” says the third-generation artichoke farmer, whose father is now 97. “John Emile later came in to farm where the Crossroads and Barnyard shopping centers are. Joe Sbarra planted artichokes where Rancho Cañada Golf Club is now. And the Pezzini family, still prominent in artichokes, partnered with my grandfather.”
Theirs was a community sustained by artichokes. It was their lifestyle and their livelihood, their “daily bread” and even the currency with which they bartered for everything else they needed.
“We rarely went to the store,” says John Odello from his kitchen table in Carmel, a room like every other in the home he shares with wife, Marie: artfully adorned but not overrun by objets d’artichoke.
“When my grandfather established our artichoke fields, he was land rich and cash poor, so he implemented the European custom of bartering. Down at the wharf, we traded a sack of artichokes for a bucket of fish or abalone. Up the Valley, we traded artichokes for apricots and pears. My grandmother canned what we couldn’t eat. We planted a vegetable garden by the cookhouse and raised pigs by the barn. We even made our own soap.”
When harvesting his more than 300 acres of artichokes, John never wore gloves. They got in the way of his technique, he says— the flick of his wrist that helped him cut hundreds of chokes per hour while avoiding the thistle’s spiny defenses.
“When we farmed artichokes,” he says, “we grew globe artichokes by breaking a stalk off an older plant and letting it take root in the ground. It took six months. Nowadays, that process is too costly, so farmers grow artichokes from a seed, which has a yield in 90 days. But the artichoke lover can tell a globe from a seed artichoke. The globe is tight, whereas the seed is open. The globe is hard, like an apple, and the seed artichoke is soft. If it doesn’t squeak when squeezed, don’t buy it. This means the artichoke is dehydrated and will get tough when boiled. But when an artichoke is just right, it is still the best.”
You know you have waited too long to harvest an artichoke, he says, when the leaves have popped open. By then, the heart has begun to harden, and the stem has become woody and brittle. In late harvest, it takes twice as long to saw through the dry stalk. And a cook cannot boil or bake or roast or fry the choke back to succulence.
Yet if harvested when the leaves are still clenched in a tight fist, the artichoke will be soft at the center. The stem will yield to one slice of the X-Acto knife, and the heart will remain tender. “When the artichoke is mature but not over-ripe,” says John, “you don’t need to hide it; you can just boil it in a little lemon juice and vinegar, and it’s great. Of course, it was such a staple for us that we came up with all kinds of ways to serve it—in soups, salads, frittatas, gnocchi, grilled, breaded and fried—and we never grew tired of it. But that was then, when the fields were active. Today, we buy our artichokes and consider them a treat.”
The Odello artichoke fields were in full production in 1995 when the El Niño storms hit the Peninsula, flooding the fields and destroying their yield. The family restored the fields and returned to farming, only to witness the wrath of El Niño return two years later. This time, they “called it quits.”
“Today, the fields west of Highway 1 to the ocean belong to the State of California,” says John, “and the acreage east of the highway belongs to Clint Eastwood. Some days I miss it, miss the artichokes and the life we built around them. Every day I go down to visit my father, who still lives on the property. Some people say it’s great to see the land restored to its native state, back to what it was hundreds of years ago. I wonder who here knows what it looked like then.”
Lisa Crawford Watson lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where she is an instructor of writing and journalism for California State University Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College. Lisa is also a freelance writer, specializing in art & architecture, health & lifestyle and food & wine.