The world is full of difficult-to-eat freaks of nature, but somehow the recalcitrance of these little buggers only makes them more lovable. Ranking high on this list is the lowly, prickly artichoke.
Such is a fact Monterey County, California has known well for almost a century now, where a belt of perfect soil produces nearly all the United States’ artichokes each year. Even here, nowhere has turned these little green grenades into a mascot more effectively than the farming town of Castroville.
Erected at the front of a fruit and vegetable stand-cum-restaurant (aptly called “Giant Artichoke”) is a 20-foot tall, 12-foot wide concrete version of nature’s green wonder. Tourists pull over to take pictures with it before wandering inside for what is rumored to be pretty decent food. Passersby would be forgiven for thinking this were a mere marketing ploy on behalf of the establishment in whose parking lot the huge artichoke stands, were it not for the fact that its tumescence goes part-and-parcel with Castroville’s rank as “Artichoke Center of the World.”
But perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the World’s Largest Artichoke is the fact that its very first queen was none other than Marilyn Monroe herself. Way back in 1947 – to be fair, a full 16 years before the giant ‘choke was commissioned by roadside stand owner Ray Bei – the young ingenue was crowned the queen of Castroville’s very first annual Artichoke Festival.
Despite setting an insurmountable bar for all her successors and having such a lovely ring to it, “Norma Jean, Artichoke Queen” remains a little-referenced pitstop on Monroe’s path to fame, even as so many fans of Americana stop to pay tribute to the giant, green wonder that continues to magnetically attract our attention, just like it did hers so long ago.
Know Before You Go
At Hwy 156 & Main Street. You'll know when you see it.