The weekend before our departure from the Monterey area was the regionally-well-known Artichoke Festival. Trivia fans know that Castroville, CA is the Artichoke Capital of the World. (The festival is sometimes called the Castroville Artichoke Festival.) We were pleased to hear the festival would take place live and in person, and were determined to attend. We’ve driven by the fields of artichokes and admired the many artichokes waving at the end of their stems. I heard a home gardener complain that her artichoke plants only yield 4 or 5 artichokes, while the commercial growers may easily get a dozen or more.
Production of artichokes may center on Castroville, but the festival was held at the centrally-located Monterey County Fairgrounds. A mile or two from the coast, the day was hot and sunny, with lots of people filling the parking lots by 11:30 am when we arrived. There was still space for us, and we paid our admission and went in. First stop was the event area, where a local dance school was winding up their program, bringing about 100 K-12 students to the stage.
Entertainment was followed by the artichoke-eating contest. We have no idea how the six participants were selected, four men and two women. The MC had his hands full trying to pump up the crowd and the participants, as they awaited their bags of steamed artichokes. No melted butter! This was as difficult as the potato-judging in Ireland, where the judges tasted nine boiled potatoes without butter or salt. At the artichoke-eating contest, each participant was given a bag of steamed artichokes that had been weighed. The person whose bag weighed the least at the end was the winner.
There was some discussion of how long the eating would go on. This wasn’t to set a record, but to see who ate the most in a determined time. Once the time was set for three minutes, the MC’s watch didn’t keep the right time, and an additional 45 seconds was added. We don’t really know how long the contest continued.
We watched the various strategies of artichoke eating, mostly the contestants tore each in half and ate the center. However, there were also the “eat from the bottom” group. The MC assured us that it was a way to maximize how much of the artichoke could be eaten without bothering to remove the center choke, the prickly part. The chipmunk-cheeks of the eaters were something to see, especially in the final moments when they each tried to get as much artichoke in their mouth as possible before time was called. I went for a photo with Mr. Artichoke while they were weighing the bags.
A stocky young man in the center of the group was my bet for the winner. He had used the “eat from the bottom” technique and had artichoke bits all over his face. Others had their favorites, and we all applauded while the judges weighed the bags of leftovers. I was amazed to find that one of the women won! I believe the prize was all our applause.
We went on to the producers tent, where growers were selling boxes of about 40 artichokes each. We overheard a seller offer to set aside a box for one person, saying that he fully expected to sell out his huge pile of boxes by mid-afternoon. What do you do with 40 artichokes?!
There was a quilt contest of artichoke-themed small quilts. Quilts are an interesting medium for showing artichokes, as the leaves provide an interesting shape for a lot of different textures and colors of green. Jonathan and I particularly liked the prize winning quilt of a blue and red parrot sitting on an artichoke.
We admired some of the fancy cars that were on display, too. They don’t have anything in common with artichokes, but there was a lot of participation and enthusiasm.
We had to eat something, and went for fried artichokes. There was nothing wrong with the batter-dipped pieces of artichoke that wouldn’t have been improved with a squeeze of lemon or vinegar, some salt, or hot sauce, or mayonnaise, or remoulade sauce, or something. Artichoke hearts don’t have a strong flavor, and when dipped in batter and fried, neither batter nor artichoke seemed to gain flavor. They just tasted fried. There was a long line to get a boiled or grilled artichoke, and we should have known that might have been a better choice. We have eaten fried artichokes, however, and there you have it.
I was hoping to get a souvenir from the sales tent, because we’d passed a couple wearing black t-shirts with a pair of big purple and green smiling artichokes on the front and in tall gold lettering “Okie-Dokey, Artichokey!” We were disappointed to find none of these. We saw the couple again, and asked them where they got their wonderful shirts. “Amazon!” I did get a lovely souvenir photo of me as the goddess of artichokes.
We enjoyed the festival, because it seemed a pretty local event, with everyone from the growers, entertainers, and visitors from the region, all appreciating the Castroville area as the source of America’s artichokes.