The plucky folks at the California Artichoke Advisory Board have a bellyache with the United Nations that Pino Cansoneri says has escalated into a diplomatic crisis in the kitchen at La Campana.
The CAAB is in Castroville, the UN is mostly in New York and Cansoneri is the artichoke manager at what’s billed as the oldest restaurant in Rome. The issues on the menu at the 492-year-old trattoria include a stack of artichoke production figures calculated by the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, how to close the widening artichoke gap between the U.S. and China, and whether Marilyn Monroe favored her perennial thistles American and boiled or fried and Italian.
“Monroe preferred Italian artichokes,” insists Cansoneri, who has spent 27 of his 45 years selecting and serving La Campana’s ancient dish of “carciofo alla giudia,” or fried Jewish artichokes, at 6 euros ($8.47) a pair.
“Eat the whole thing, even the prickly part,” says Rome’s foremost artichokologist. “No waste.”
Cansoneri’s position steams CAAB manager Patricia Hopper. Her job is to figure out how California farmers -- who last season picked 5,664 acres clean of 53,890 tons of American artichokes worth $63 million -- can lift the U.S. out of the No. 8 spot on the UN’s FAOSTAT cynara cardunculus production table, overtake No. 6 China and, eventually, knock Italy out of first place by getting Americans to grow and eat more artichokes.
“The UN says the Chinese each year produce 66,000 tons of artichokes,” says Hopper, who’s also responsible for welcoming the expected 35,000 visitors to Castroville’s annual artichoke festival on May 21. “Now tell me, when has anyone ever trusted any statistical data coming out of China? And you know the UNFAO is based in Rome. A coincidence?” FAO spokesman Erwin Northoff says his organization doesn’t cook its statistics. “Member nations provide us with the raw numbers,” Northoff says. “We’ve never found Italian or Chinese artichoke data to be nonsensical.”
Hopper concedes that La Campana’s fried artichokes are yummy and says the UN is full of hooey. Besides, she adds, “Marilyn Monroe is our secret weapon, no matter what the UN and La Campana tell you.”
Northoff is dubious of the correlation. “There’s absolutely no statistical similarity between the shape of an artichoke and Marilyn Monroe,” he says.
History proves otherwise. Years before Playboy founder Hugh Hefner made Monroe the magazine’s first cover girl in 1953, the California Artichoke & Vegetable Growers Corporation on Feb. 28, 1948, crowned her Artichoke Queen. As Hopper tells it, artichoke ranchers Edward Modena, Enrico Bellone and Randy Barsotti spotted the starlet promoting diamonds in a local jewelry store.
“The boys invited Marilyn on a tour of the fields, threw a sash over her shoulders and crowned her Queen of the Artichokes over a lunch of fresh artichoke hearts,” Hopper says. “It was a brilliant marketing strategy and I’m relaunching the campaign.”
Hopper says the CAAB’s founding fathers sent Monroe off to put some shine on an industry for decades controlled by New York mobster Ciro “the Artichoke” Terranova, but the Three Stooges (Curly, Larry and Moe) messed things up when Curly’s habit of using artichokes as hand grenades captured the imagination of pre-Playboy American youth. Then the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency got into the act, codenaming their mind-control experiments Project Artichoke.
“It also doesn’t help that our only nickname is choke; you know, hit-man Arty Chokes three for a dollar at the supermarket,” Hopper groans. “People forget that artichokes stimulate the taste buds and help prevent gall stones.”
Hopper says the challenge is finding solid evidence to prove that Monroe patriotically refused to eat Italian artichokes and that the U.S. produces more of them than China.
“All the growers who knew Marilyn are dead,” Hopper says. “We once counted artichoke petals to help establish American dominance, but that was ridiculous, so we stopped.”
Some historians maintain Monroe was a Greek artichoke.
“The claim does have marketing clout,” Hopper says. “The story goes that Zeus grew bored with the women on Mount Olympus and decided to go slumming on Earth. He met a sexy Greek girl named Cynara, but she grew tired of him and left. So Zeus hurled a lightning bolt at Cynara and turned her into an artichoke.”
Hopper says Greek stalwarts are pushing the theory in hopes of surpassing Switzerland’s No. 29 spot on the UN’s artichoke hit parade. “Can’t blame them,” she says. “There’s a financial crisis in Greece, too.”
Back at La Campana, “Ancient Rome’s local restaurant,” chief artichoke fry-man Enrico Rabottini has only praise for the Italian choke and says that Sophia Loren eats there. “I prepare 1,200 artichokes a week for our customers,” the 26-year-old chef says, plopping a crisp one on a plate. “The cooking temperature must be precise to remove all grease. Exactly 25 minutes in hot oil, and then two minutes more in very hot oil.”
Hopper agrees with Rabottini’s rough recipe and says she’s embarrassed that Americans have yet to master the intricacies of carciofo alla giudia. “We first batter our fried chokes, so they come out of the fryer too greasy,” she says. “Everyone around here calls them French-fried chokes.”
Yet while Cansoneri remains firm on Monroe’s partiality for Italian artichokes and Northoff continues to decline pleas for a UN artichoke audit and Chinese Agriculture Minister Han Changfu fails to return phone calls, an eyewitness has come forward to set the record straight.
That would be “too damn old” Hugo Tottino, who says he was 21 on the day of Monroe’s coronation. “Randy Barsotti brought Marilyn into my artichoke shed,” recalls Tottino, a partner in Ocean Mist Farms, the largest artichoke installation in the U.S. “She was a real good-looking woman and she’d never before eaten an artichoke. No way Marilyn would have eaten a Chinese or Italian choke. I was there, I knew the lady and taught her about artichokes.”
Tottino says Monroe’s endorsement briefly boosted sales. “She was really committed to helping artichokes,” Tottino says. “If Marilyn was still alive, there would be no squabbling about America being No. 1 in artichokes.”
Information: La Campana, 18 Vicolo della Campana, 00186 Rome, http://www.ristorantelacampana.com or +39-0668-75-273.