Lips As Sweet As Artichokes

Now that April is here and all the good vegetables are getting into full swing, I’m oddly reminded of John Steinbeck and my time in northern California.  I bet you’re thinking that I’m going to pull that reference from East of Eden where there was the transcontinental lettuce shipping debacle, right?

Wrong. I actually was thinking of Steinbeck and his environs because artichoke season is getting underway and they’re  fascinating to me from a chemistry standpoint.  The artichoke, a member of the thisle family, were virtually unheard of in the United States until the early twentieth century despite that they were as common as dirt and as old as time in the rest of the world.  At the dawn of the century a few Italian immigrants started planting artichoke plants on a few hundred acres near Half Moon Bay,located about an hour south of San Francisco.  These immigrant farmers were successful with their crops and started shipping them over to the east coast as early as 1906.  Springtime eating, in my opinion, has never been better since then.  (Especially when served with a touch of aioli.)

Anyways, the Half Moon Bay part got me to thinking of Tortilla Flat and how much I enjoyed reading it when I was living in the area.  Thinking about that book segued me to thinking about artichokes, which then segued into me wondering why artichokes made everything taste sweeter after you ate them.  Could I have been imagining things, thinking that all things from northern California were sweeter, fresher, brighter and more vibrant?  Or was there something to this?

As it turned out, it wasn’t just me waxing poetic on NorCal.  Artichokes do make things taste sweeter to some people thanks to an organic acid called cynarin.  I knew it wasn’t just me being twee!

Cynarin is one of the hydroxycinnamic acids, is formed from a bit of quinic acid combined with caffeic acid.  This hodgepodge of aromatic acids makes everything taste sweeter by stimulating the tastebuds’ sweetness receptors temporarily.  For a brief minute or two after eating an artichoke the water will taste sweeter, as well as just about everything else.

Isn’t nature kind of fun in that way?

However, not everyone is able to discern any flavor changes after eating an artichoke.  These unfortunate few, up to 15 percent of people worldwide, aren’t sensitive to cynarin thanks to genetics.  I pity those people as their whole artichoke eating experience is mundane, the leaves serving little more than a vehicle to cart remoulade, aioli and vinaigrette to their unsweetened lips.  This genetic glitch also killed the serious possibility of using cynarin as a sugar substitute, as it was once hoped to be used in the mid twentieth century.

So for the next time I’m feeling nostalgic for the northern California coastline, I know that as I crack open another Steinbeck novel over dinner that it isn’t just me being a sentimental oddball.  Genetic sensitivity and chemistry are determining it instead!


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