Artichoke Heart by Carla Newberry

The air in the grocery store hums with a medley of sounds—self checkout machines beep beep beeping with each scan, the rhythmic clatter of shopping carts, and the occasional whine of a bored child, followed by the groan of a mother as she navigates the labyrinth of fresh produce, just trying to hurry out of the store. Towers of glossy apples, pyramids of citrus fruits, and leafy greens arranged in meticulous rows beckon my attention, though I am only here for one thing. Weaving my way around the aisles and pushing through the 5 o’clock crowd of shopping carts, I make my way to the wall of produce. Fingers grazing over the cool, waxed exteriors of cucumbers and the bumpy texture of zucchini. I love zucchini. Zucchini bread is one of my absolute favorite things to make, though that is not what I’m here for today. I’m here for an artichoke. 

Selecting the perfect artichoke becomes an intimate dance. I inspect each one just as my mother once taught me, feeling the weight in my palm, inspecting the leaves to make sure they’re firm. Always find one with a thick stem, those have the biggest hearts. My mother and I made this same shopping trip at this same grocery store many times throughout my childhood. We always got two to share. Now that I am shopping alone it seems unnecessary to buy two artichokes, but this deviation from a nostalgic routine feels almost heavy on my chest. I grab the two best looking artichokes, though I know I’m only going to be able to eat one of them, and make my way to the self checkout line. 

Grabbing a tallboy can of Coke and a pack of gum from the checkout line, I make my way to the machine and punch in my rewards number. I still use my mother’s phone number for gas points even though I’ve been away from home for many years now. Scanning the can and the pack of gum, I put them aside and begin checking out. 

“Select how many bags you would like to purchase” I groan. I forgot we have to pay for plastic bags now. I punch zero into the machine and put my items into a bag anyway, leaving the store without grabbing my receipt. I never paid for my artichokes. 

Upon arriving home, my shopping bag finds its place on the kitchen island with a resounding thud. Cracking open the can of Coke, I relish in the familiar hiss and take a leisurely sip. The cold liquid cascades down, soothing my previously parched mouth, and I savor the effervescent dance of bubbles on my taste buds. Coca Cola is also a favorite of my mother’s. She once told me she drank it every day while she was pregnant with me and then couldn’t break the habit. She claims to get a headache if she doesn’t have a coke in the morning, but I think she’d be much better off with water. I can’t judge though, this happens to be a wonderful trait she’s passed on to me, as I also drink Coke almost daily. Maybe that’s why I have so many cavities.

 Growing up I always refused the notion that I would be just like her, but now that I am away from home and becoming my own person, I find her influence embedded in my daily actions and gestures. Oddly enough, it was this realization that triggered an unexpected hankering for artichokes.

Bringing the water to a boil in a large pot, I plop both artichokes in and set the timer. I’ve always been amazed how long it takes to cook succulent leaves. 30 minutes for an artichoke is absurd in my opinion, but I guess good things take time. How cliché. Standing over the pot, the steam envelops my face, carrying the scent of salt and, well, artichokes—no better way to describe it. Watching the small bubbles forming the rolling boil at the bottom of the pot, my mind echoes with a familiar quip; Monica Geller’s voice reminding me that “You know, a watched pot never beeps,”. Of course the actual term is ‘boils’ but my brain is filled with little Friends-isms from watching it throughout the years. I step away from the stove and mosey over to the couch. Thanks Monica. 

My family all agrees that Monica Geller is the sitcom television embodiment of my mother. A bundle of energy and determination wrapped in a quirky, obsessive-compulsive package. My dad in a way, is like Chandler. A quintessential blend of wit, sarcasm, but also vulnerability. I think this is why they work great together in the show, and why my parents are great together too. Perfect balances of one another. My father’s strengths make up for my mother’s flaws and vice versa. Though this never seemed to be good enough for me because every day I would pray for the barbs to fall off and the petals to peel away. I’ve always wanted to see my mother’s heart in a genuine way, blooming open like a flower would. Like my dad would. But my mother is an artichoke. 

Flipping through channels, I stumble upon a rerun of Friends and decide to indulge in the familiar laughter of the Thanksgiving episode where Joey “hilariously” finds himself with his head inside a turkey. After all, this artichoke eating ritual could not have been complete without an episode chattering in the background. As the corny ’90s jokes and laugh track fill the room, a sudden weight settles on my chest. The distant sound of my dad’s voice from the kitchen blurs my focus from the TV sitcom ambiance.

“Dude! The Broncos game is starting in 15 minutes. At 2:00, the couch and the TV are mine!” He extends his closed fist for a playful fist bump, accompanied by an exaggerated raise of one eyebrow.

“Say ‘Go Broncos,'” he insists, waiting until I reciprocate the knucks.

“Yeah, yeah, go Broncos. Can we at least finish this episode first?” I plea, my eight-year-old hands meticulously peeling away artichoke leaves and dipping them in butter.

“You’ve seen this episode a million times. We have all of the DVDs. You can watch it anytime you want”. My mother, grabbing the bowl of melted butter and the TV remote next to it, shoots my father a sly smile. 

“You recorded the game didn’t you?” She asks, already knowing the answer.

“Of course I did.” 

“So you can watch it later too. Riiight?” Everyone in this household knows mom is the boss, so whatever she said ultimately went. I hated being on the receiving end of that look, but it was at least in my favor this time. 

“Fine. Finish your 10th episode of Friends today. I’ll watch the game in my office.” My father says, sliding down the wooden floor in the hallway on his socks and around the corner to scurry up the stairs. I’ve always admired my dad’s ability to stay connected to his inner child. I’m much closer to my dad and have been my whole life for this reason. He played like a kid and really engaged with mine and my brother’s hobbies. 

My mother never did, she always kept an emotional distance between the two of us. I love my mother but it always felt as if she were my manager instead of a comforting maternal figure. I was glad we at least had this together.  Looking across the room at my mother with a knowing smile, reciting lines to each other just moments before they’re spoken by the characters, a testament to the countless episodes we’ve watched together. There’s an unspoken camaraderie that takes place, knees touching as we sit next to one another to share a bowl of butter, our synchronized laughter with the TV. Comfort within our silence as Friends plays. Artichokes, Friends and Coca Cola were the only things my mother and I seemed to agree on. Especially now.

The memory was disrupted by the alarming sound of the kitchen timer go off. Dang, it’s been 30 minutes already? With anticipation, I approach the bubbling pot on the stove. My hands protected by oven mitts, grasp the handles of the pot, and I carefully lift the lid. Gently, I retrieve the now tender artichokes, their once vibrant green leaves transformed into a softened, edible delicacy.

“God dammnit I forgot the butter.” I mutter to myself, plopping the artichokes back into the pot they came from. I retrieve butter from the fridge and scoop an unhealthy amount into a bowl. The microwave hums to life, transforming the solid butter into a sizzling liquid gold. Using enough salt to brine a steak, I season my butter just as my mom does. When I was growing up my mom always bought this fancy Irish butter from one of the organic grocery stores in town that was just so delicious you could drink it. So salty but so smooth. I buy margarine I think. I don’t know, I don’t put much effort into planning meals or buying groceries. 

Armed with tongs once again, I retrieve the artichokes, deftly squeezing out excess water before arranging them, each in its dedicated bowl. Balancing the bowls and the butter bowl, I carry my impromptu feast to the waiting comfort of the couch. 

Pulling away the first leaf I am pricked by the sharp barb on the end. I guess I must have forgotten eating artichokes required tactical precision. I look at the pad of my index finger and notice a small pinprick of blood. Putting the tip of my finger to my lips and sucking the blood I think to myself you might have drawn my blood but I’ll eat your heart out. Sinking my front teeth into the meat of the leaf-culprit I realize I once again forgot butter. Got me again artichoke. I discard the remains of that leaf into the bowl, plucking a new one and dipping it into the half butter half salt concoction. Delicious. Maybe the butter is doing all the heavy lifting here, but I still love you artichoke. 

Leaf after leaf I devour until I get close to the soft inner petals, staring at the exposed heart. My mom used to cut it off for me when we ate them together, even in my teenage years she was worried about my skills with a knife. Retrieving the knife from it’s block, I begin cutting into the heart. The resulting chunks find their way into my bowl of melted butter, and I eagerly delve in with a fork. The initial bite into the heart delivers a powerful wave of nostalgia, hitting me like a gut punch with its familiar and cherished taste. As I savor the delicate flavors of the first artichoke, memories of shared moments with her flood my thoughts. The laughter, the stories, the subtle gestures of love. With each bite, I bridge the gap between the present and the distant moments when we were more than just strangers.

Turning my gaze to the second artichoke resting in its solitary bowl, I sigh. I wish my mom could be here right now. Laughing away at friends, cutting the hearts off our artichokes, and of course giving me the last heart chunk from her bowl. I suppose she could be, but she hasn’t wanted to see me for quite some time. The actual me, that is. It always seemed like she kept me at arm’s length, revealing slivers of vulnerability only in moments extreme anger that led to tears when the boiling water inside bubbled up so high it pushed hot streams of steam out her ears. I know that like an artichoke, her small salted heart hides inside, guarded by barriers only hot water or a knife can pry out of her. I so happen to be the only one brave enough to do it. Yet, with the second artichoke waiting patiently in its bowl, the pang of separation persists. It’s not just about the artichokes; it’s not about TV shows or soda pops. It’s about the shared experiences that have become elusive echoes. Maybe, in the quiet simplicity of this artichoke meal, there lies a subtle invitation for reconciliation—a chance to break through the protective layers that time and circumstance have built. 

But my mother is an artichoke.


Biography: All my life, my head has been beyond the clouds, and I fully intend to keep it that way! The journey begins here with the Aims Review, and I am thankful for an opportunity such as this.