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Repast Past

Heart of the Matter

By Peter Steinhart

In the past the artichoke was something of a California exclusive, a dish no valedictorian from Nebraska had yet wrestled. And even in these days of instant electronic familiarity, I'd bet the artichoke still may be a freshman rite of passage.

The artichoke remains an outlier in part because it requires so much patience. Cooking one is a long, steamy vigil—a dreary ordeal to anyone attuned to the rhythms of video games and Twitter. Eating one requires you to pluck away each individual petal (Omigod, it's a flower!) for dips into adulterated mayonnaise.  Then you have to perform surgery to cut away all that fuzz from the heart, and if you do a poor job, you're going to feel as if you've swallowed pinfeathers. Finally, after eating one, you have more left on your plate than you started with—a depressing inefficiency to any future economist or engineer.

Fifty years ago, the Wilbur dining commons tried serving them, an enormous labor of boiling and draining and individual forceps-ing of hot artichoke onto individual plate. On the tables they were studiously ignored, pushed onto butter dishes or saucers, given no eye contact, iced out of the conversation. Until someone with a gift for aeronautics discerned that an artichoke is about the size of a baseball, with a soft, satisfying heft. It could be propelled accurately at the back of someone's head clear across the room. The inevitable food fight ensued.

One quiet scholar picked up a dozen of the spent missiles, put them on a tray, covered them with napkins and snuck off to eat them in his room. Not surprisingly, he went on to a career in anthropology.

Peter Steinhart, '65,is the author of The Undressed Art: Why We Draw and The Company of Wolves.

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