Once, in a Food & Culture class, I gave a little lecture on sex and eating and the slang that the two activities share. Afterwards, several students told me about the legend of Zeus and Cynara. The story’s general drift was that Zeus fell deeply in lust with a mortal (familiar story, yes?) who, after various plot twists, is turned into an artichoke by the big lecher. This intrigued me because, while I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about Classical mythology, I was unfamiliar with the tale. While puzzling over the myth, the recollection of my first encounter with an artichoke rose took over my thoughts.
I was, perhaps, nineteen or twenty or so, and like Zeus, deeply in lust with a beautiful young mortal. Alas, like Zeus, all my efforts had been rejected. However, I persevered, and finally, one lovely autumn afternoon she invited me to her apartment, “to play.”
Her very words.
I was, you can be sure, ready to play.
When I arrived, I was somewhat dismayed to find all of her roommates in attendance. We sat around in the kitchen, making the sort of small talk one makes while devoutly wishing to be getting on with something better. The beautiful young mortal asked me if I had ever eaten an artichoke.
I wasn’t exactly sure what an artichoke WAS, but would have tried ANYTHING she might offer. She placed a steaming, grayish olive, spiny-looking thing before me, and slyly slipped a bowl of melted butter across the table.
Sensing my utter cluelessness, she peeled off a leaf by its thorned tip, swirled it in the butter, her fingers describing lazy figure-eights in the golden fluid, then raised it to her lips. She hesitated for a second, then looked me in the eye as the tip of her tongue caught a dangling drop of butter. Still holding the tip, she laid the base of the leaf on her tongue. Biting down, ever so gently, on the leaf, her lips slightly parted, she slowly pulled it across her teeth, removing every trace of the tender pulp.
The eating scene that followed, involving hands and faces covered with slippery butter, accompanied by ecstatic moans of gustatory pleasure, was worthy of Tom Jones.
But I digress.
My student’s comments intrigued me, so I decided to look into the matter.
It turns out there is no mention of such a myth in any of the usual references. The story is strangely complete for a Greek myth; its lingering attention to Zeus’ pleasure seems more decadently modern, at least Latinate. However, it is not mentioned in Ovid’s Metamophoses (and Ovid would never have been able to pass THIS one up). Nor does it appear in Catullus, Procopius or Sextus Propertius, all of whom seemed likely enthusiasts for such a tale. Horace mentions the name “Cynara” three times in Book IV of his Odes – but it’s only a name, with none of the tantalizing tale my students mentioned.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica says that the artichoke as we know it (e.g., the edible flower) is first mentioned “in Italy about 1400.” There is even some speculation that “cynara,” the Latin word for “thistle,” did not originally refer to artichokes, but to cardoons — which makes sense, since the leaves of both were eaten the same way. So it’s very unlikely that any kind of Classical connection exists.
The source of this story seems to be the book quoted at an artichoke PR website listed above: Cynara Erotica. The site does not list an author, but a contact company (A. C. Castelli Associates, NYC, NY). The book is not listed in the Library of Congress, and I couldn’t find the company, using regular Web resources. Assuming that it is nothing but an advertising ploy, was it completely original, or was there an earlier source of the story? I have discovered several appearances of “Cynara” that are probably newer (erotic literature and episodes of Xena, Warrior Princess) — not exactly the kinds of references I needed.
One of my correspondents suggested the work of nineteenth century poet, Christopher Ernest Dowson.
Looking him up, I found that he was a member of the Rhymer’s Club (AKA “The Decadents”), and that his friends included William Butler Yeats and Aubrey Beardsley. His idols included Poe, Baudelaire and Verlaine. He influenced both Yeats and Rupert Brooke (who claimed to have committed most of Dowson’s work to memory). In 1891, Dowson wrote his best-known poem, “Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae” (it can be found at http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/mar/14/non-sum-qualis-cynarae-dowson). Dowson’s title is a line from Horace’s Ode; roughly translated, it means: “I am no longer the man I was when sweet Cynara ruled over me.” Published in 1896, it was written for the poet’s unrequited love, a twelve-year-old waitress named Adelaide. The poem describes how, while the poet led a thoroughly dissolute life, his “Cynara” was never out of his thoughts.
Dowson does not mention Zeus or suggest any Classical allusion. I suspect he chose the name solely because it implied tender bliss surrounded by a spiny exterior designed to repel unworthy suitors. Apparently, Dowson was one of those unworthy suitors – certainly, his poem was unlikely to melt the heart of a young girl who probably expected a lover to be more traditionally faithful. She married someone else in 1897. Dowson had TB, but died three years later (in the best Romantic tradition), of poverty and absinthe addiction. He was thirty-two.
You were wondering what ever became of MY Cynara, the beautiful young mortal who introduced me to the artichoke? I never saw her again. I was young and impatient and stupid, and never realized that I wasn’t the seducer in the story.
Preparing artichokes is a bit tedious, but not technically-demanding. As with any other amorous quest, little difficulties and sacrifices along the way only make the ultimate reward that much more satisfying.
1.Cut a tiny amount off the stem end (not too much, the stem is part of the most tender and tasty treat, the reward for the eater’s efforts).
2.Cut the spiny top off and peel away the toughest outside leaves. Use scissors or shears to clip off any spines left at the tip of remaining leaves.
3.Drop each prepared artichoke into cold water mixed with lemon juice – it will prevent the cut surfaces from browning.
4.Boil or steam the artichokes until a sharp knife easily penetrates the stem.
5.Meanwhile, melt some butter with a bit of crushed garlic if you like. Some folks prefer an herbal vinaigrette but, for me, that misses the entire decadent point of the experience.
6.Serve one per person, with a little bowl of buttery bliss for each.
7.After you’ve peeled, and dipped, and scraped every luscious leaf, you’ll get to the choke. It’s a mass of tough nasty fibers that stand between you and the final ecstasy. Just scrape it away with the edge of a spoon and discard it without a moment’s hesitation. You’ll be left with the stem and the base; you will have won the tender heart of the artichoke.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us