A Brief History of Artichokes … and the Mafia

published Mar 3, 2017
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(Image credit: Lilyana Vynogradova)

In California, where I live, March marks the start of artichoke season. That’s when the vegetable — officially, a spiky flowering plant called a thistle — starts showing up in farmers markets across the state.

Cooked and eaten around the Mediterranean for at least two millennia, the ancient artichoke is known as the “aristocrat” of the vegetable world, with its delicate flavor and impenetrable exterior, at least to the uninitiated.

It’s also the subject of a little-known chapter in the history of organized crime. Almost a century ago, New York City mobsters weren’t just bootlegging, gambling, and loansharking. They were engaged in another shady million-dollar operation: artichoke racketeering.

The Heart of the Matter

The story starts in the 1890s, when Italian immigrants first brought the artichoke to California, where it thrived in the cool, foggy fields of Monterey County. It took a few years until a local businessman, John Debenedetti, quit his day job and dedicated himself to developing California’s artichoke industry.

He discovered that big profits were to be found not in his hometown, where the vegetable sold for a nickel, but in the northeast, where Italian-Americans, eager to get their hands on an old-world delicacy, would pay fifty cents to a dollar. Especially sought after was the baby artichoke, more versatile than the larger Globe variety, and used in fried, Roman-style preparations.

In 1917, Debenedetti established an artichoke growers’ association in Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, and soon farmers began shipping crates across the continent in newly refrigerated train cars.

Dipping into Artichokes

It didn’t take long for the artichoke’s popularity to explode in a few East Coast cities. Street vendors hawked the thistle from pushcarts in New York and Philadelphia. At markets in Italian neighborhoods in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, a rare European import became a springtime staple from California.

The 1921 edition of Fannie Farmer’s cookbook was the first to feature recipes for boiled artichokes (served with béchamél or hollandaise), deep-fried artichokes, and another variation, stuffed with ground chicken and drizzled with thin white sauce. “No new vegetable has ever made so rapid an inroad into the market as the artichoke,” said L. Casazza, a wholesale merchant, speaking to the New York Times in 1926. “Just a flavor of garlic is necessary.”

All Choked Up

(Image credit: NYPD)

But the story of the American artichoke took an unusual turn, thanks to Ciro Terranova, New York City underboss of the infamous Morello Family, an artichoke dealer who set out to corner the U.S. market for the California commodity.

The Sicilian-born Terranova, who traveled in an armored limousine with bullet-proof windows, sent his men to coerce importers into selling them artichokes at a fraction of the original cost. Those who refused to cooperate were savagely beaten by the mob. In turn, Terranova sold his seized artichokes to local vendors, doubling prices and pocketing the profits.

His racket earned him a nickname: the Artichoke King. By 1930, New York newspapers featured regular reports about a criminal enterprise that stretched all the way across the continent to California, where Terranova’s armed thugs intimidated growers into selling their crop directly to them.

Turning Over a New Leaf

One morning in December 1935, help finally came from Fiorello La Guardia, New York City’s mayor. Arriving at the Bronx Terminal Market at dawn, La Guardia climbed onto the back of a flatbed truck and read from a statement, proclaiming an emergency and banning the “sale, display, or possession” of the artichoke in New York City.

Kidnapping, extortion, and murder could be traced to sales of the thistle, explained the mayor, leaving him no choice but to banish it from New York, beginning the day after Christmas. “I like artichokes, particularly with hollandaise sauce,” he conceded, but the ban “will remain in force until the grip of the racketeers is broken.”

Criminal prosecutions followed, but the ban piqued the public’s curiosity, making artichokes more popular than ever. “Local wholesalers were swamped with orders,” explain historians Michael Svanevik and Shirley Burgett. “The furor was such that LaGuardia’s ban was lifted within a week.”

Criminal investigations targeting Terranova and his men soon destroyed the racket. Indictments and prison sentences followed. By the end of January 1936, importers were freely selling artichokes to the public at regular prices, much to the relief of California growers. Just two years after Mayor La Guardia’s proclamation, the Artichoke King died a poor man.

But the artichoke lived on, and in the wake of the ban, instructions for novice eaters began appearing in national newspapers and magazines. “After the artichoke is well boiled it is ready for either the hollandaise or the butter sauce. One approaches the vegetable from the outside, eating only the tender lower edge of each leaf as it is removed from the core,” wrote the New York Times in 1936. Beneath the tough, thorny layers, said the author, lay a hidden, sweet center. The artichoke was a metaphor for life.

Eat Some (Legally Procured) Artichokes