The evolutionary success of our species is in part—a rather large part I suspect—due to the fact that Homo sapiens is an omnivore, meaning we’ll eat damn near everything, even one another. Still and all, a line must be drawn when options are available, and though we owe the brave soul to first eat oysters an everlasting debt, we should reserve only the merest pat of gratitude for the first to eat a thistle.
I have no truck with foods that are overly fussy, over-involved or overpriced—the latter particularly if they’re served for the sake of show—but I’m also adventurous in the kitchen (with mixed results) and since this year I’m growing cardoons, I had to take the plunge. A cardoon is basically a big-ass thistle (the Latin word for thistle is cardo), and cardoons have been grown as a foodstuff around the Mediterranean for millennia. I happen to be growing cardoon because it is a striking plant with silvery-gray serrated leaves up to four feet long growing from a deep root in a spiraling sprawl. Their appeal in the garden is architectural, though they do provide a great habitat for ladybugs, a definite plus for the tomatoes.
Also called an artichoke thistle, the flower bud of a cardoon can be eaten much like an artichoke, but cardoons are usually grown for the table due to the thick spines of their leaves which stripped of the leaf-ettes resemble celery stalks, and from what I could gather are prepared for the table rather much in the same way. Now, that cardoons look like and are cooked like celery should have given me a clue that they weren’t going to make a big impression on me, since celery is very much an incidental in my kitchen, a must-have for soups and stews, and raw with a dollop of pimento cheese on a cold plate, but otherwise not a vegetable I’d serve itself as a side.
When the sectioned cardoon stems were still tough as shoe-leather after a recommended 30-minute boiling, I even went so far as to put them in a gratin, reasoning that almost every damn thing tastes better with cheese. But after all my trouble, the cardoons were simply atrocious: tough, tasteless and utterly without appeal. I’ll be content to enjoy the beauty of the plant and think thrice before I bring it to the table again.