In the very early morning hours of July 18, 2012, my Aunt Rachel passed away, quite unexpectedly. We’ve spent the last two weeks traveling to be together as a family as often and for as long as possible. We are a family that is spread out across the country but one which will drop everything to be near each other when needed. It was needed this month.
This is my Auntie Rachel, with one of the loves of her life, one of her grandsons.
My Auntie Rachel was not really my aunt. She was my mother’s cousin but in our family we don’t really pay attention to the exact nature of the connection, choosing instead to focus on the content of the relationship. Rachel had one daughter, E., with whom I am extremely close.
When E. and I were little, E’s father, Rachel’s husband, died in an accident. It was awful- so hard for both of them. Later, Rachel would tell me and E. and others that her husband was the love of her life, describing it as “getting weak in the knees” when she saw him. She didn’t remarry. Instead, she fiercely loved her daughter, her son-in-law and her grandchildren.
Rachel and my mother were close and for many years the four of us (Rachel, E., my mother and I) would spend Thanksgiving in New York City. We’d see as many Broadway and Off-Broadway shows as we could possibly cram in and eat as much good food as we could. We laughed a great deal and we all had good memories of those times.
My Auntie Rachel was the one who taught me how to cook and eat an artichoke. It was the summer that I went and spent two weeks with her and E. at their home outside of Washington, D.C. It was a fantastic time. E. and I giggled to sleep every night (we were young, absolutely everything was funny), we played all day and we ate delicious food each night. I can recall going to the Hot Shoppes which was a buffet unlike one I had ever seen before. (Apparently, they may be bringing them back!) One night, we went food shopping and the store had artichokes. Auntie Rachel was so excited- this was long enough ago that they were a relative rarity in the stores- and I had no idea why. “Oh, honey,” she promised me, “you’re going to love it.”
I watched her prepare it and then cook it for what seemed like hours. When she offered me a leaf that had been dipped in melted butter and told me to sort of scrape off the pulp- “like eating lobster legs!” (she obviously knew her audience)- I thought she was crazy. But, oh, how right she was. It was a taste I couldn’t even begin to put to words- sort of creamy and green. We worked though the leaves and then she showed me the thistle. She carefully cut it out and then sliced me a piece of the heart, dipping it in butter and handing it to me. Heaven. Since that moment, every time I eat an artichoke, I think of my Auntie Rachel.
Rachel had been diagnosed with Cancer just a week prior to her death. Rachel was a women who was smart, brash, funny, passionate and loving. She cherished her daughter and was fiercely attached to her family. While she didn’t always get along with everyone, you always knew where you stood with her and when she cared about you, you knew it. Rachel loved good food, good theater, good books and good times. When we got together as a family, there was always good food, good times and most of all, good love. In the early hours of July 18th, E. was by Rachel’s side. She was with her when she died and E. told me later that Rachel had been trying to say, “love”. There could be no more fitting last word for her.
I had an artichoke for dinner a few nights ago, in honor of Rachel. She will be missed in ways we can’t even begin to understand. I ate it slowly, to savor it, and to think of my aunt. It may become a tradition for me- to eat one each month and think of Rachel.
Artichokes (one for each person)
Butter (for melting and dipping)
First, prepare your artichokes. Pull off the tough leaves at the bottom. Next, cut off the very tops, about a quarter of an inch from the point. Also cut the stem so that the base is almost flat.
Next, cut each of the remaining leaves so that they are cut in half horizontally. This takes off the tops of the leaves which have sharp points- be careful!- plus, it makes them look pretty and somewhat uniform. Rinse them under running water.
Many recipes tell you to rub the cut top with a lemon but I never bother.
I use my pressure cooker to make mine (it’s faster) but you can use a saucepan, with a steamer basket and a lid.
Put a few inches of water at the bottom, along with two peeled cloves of garlic and the lemon if you used it and heat over medium heat. Place the artichoke cut down (top down, step should be facing you) into the steamer basket.
Steam until soft, about 30-45 minutes (depends on the size.). You’ll know they’re ready when the leaves come off easily.
I like mine with melted butter, just like my Auntie Rachel taught me.
Oh, how do you eat them? Well, peel of each leaf and sort of scrape it along your teeth to get all the yummy pulp. Discard the leaves. You know it was a good artichoke when you have a pile like this:
Once you’ve pulled all the leaves out, you’ll have this:
Use a spoon to scrape out all the thistle (the little hair-like things that are spiky and not at all for eating) and you’ll be left with the best part- the heart. Slice it, dip it in butter and enjoy.