By Laura Fishman

After an hour drive through traffic on Highway 1, I finally arrived in Castroville, CA – the artichoke capital of the world. On that pleasant Saturday afternoon, I entered the 48th annual Artichoke Festival, where I was surrounded by 30,000 people eating gourmet food and listening to live music. With so much excitement, it seemed illogical that so many people had driven miles just to celebrate a vegetable.

But as it turns out, there’s much more to the artichoke than I thought there was.

The incredible edible flower can be used as an ingredient in a variety of dishes. At the festival, I saw artichoke soup, artichoke burritos, grilled artichokes, and my personal favorite – artichoke cupcakes! And it’s no wonder why artichokes in this area face a plethora of cooking possibilities; 80 percent of the country’s artichokes are grown in Monterey County, while an astonishing 100 percent of the country’s artichoke selection comes from California.

Who would ever guess that there are 23 different breeds of artichokes? When walking through my local Safeway, I barely notice the one breed offered of rancid-looking artichokes, but this weekend Castrovillians proved that this particular vegetable deserves a parade.

The different breeds of artichokes have developed over time, as artichokes are one of the oldest foods known to man. They were first grown in the Mediterranean basin thousands of years ago. Considered to be an aphrodisiac in the 16th century, the artichoke was once known to enhance sexual power.

The erotic vegetable can even improve physical appearance. Artichoke consumption can speed up your metabolism, meaning the food doesn’t fall directly to your hips.

In fact, nutritional value is just one of the green veggie’s main attractions. At the festival’s artichoke cooking demonstration chefs explained that the vegetable can reduce your cholesterol levels by as much as 33 percent. It’s also packed with necessary nutrients, including potassium, iron, and calcium. But to me the most striking feature is that artichokes contain cholorogenic acid, a substance that prevents certain types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases relating to the blood vessels and the heart.

Community members really take this vegetable to heart. After passing acres of artichoke fields, I realized how lucky I am to live in such a rich farming community. We are privileged to have access to such fresh produce like the artichoke.

After 48 years, the artichoke festival still exists, and thousands of people come back year after year. It’s a tradition that celebrates health and our well-being.