To live in Castroville, Calif., is to have artichokes in your blood. A sign over the main street proclaims Castroville - where 90 percent of the artichokes produced in the United States are grown - ``The Artichoke Center of the World.
A few blocks down the road, a 16-foot concrete-reinforced artichoke stands at the entrance of a restaurant whose specialty is French-fried artichoke hearts.
At football games, students sell bags of the vegetables to raise money. And in September, the annual Artichoke Festival (held this year on Sept. 19 and 20) features food booths, marching bands, floats, a firemen's muster, a 10-K run, and the coronation of a queen.
With one exception, she's always been a local girl.
The exception occurred shortly after World War II when the town fathers decided to stage the festival. A little-known Hollywood starlet was taking a tour of the state, hoping to generate publicity for herself. Her visit struck the growers - who wanted a little publicity themselves - as a fortunate thing.
And that is how Marilyn Monroe became the first ``Artichoke Queen.''
But in Castroville, little is made of this fact. Even printed information about the festival does not mention it. Castroville - population around 4,500 - is a town without pretensions.
Artichokes were brought to California by Italian immigrants in the late 19th Century, but Castroville, founded in 1863 by Juan Battista Castro, didn't see any of them until 1922. That year, Angelo del Chiaro and his cousin, Jan, planted 150 acres. By 1926, 12,000 acres were under cultivation in California. Most of them were centered around Castroville. That figure has remained more or less constant.
If the acreage hasn't changed much, neither have the people responsible for the crop. ``The old-timers who got involved in artichokes in the early 1920s are still the powers in the artichoke industry. Except for one `renegade' who is French, the growers are all Italian,'' says Pat Hopper, manager of the California Artichoke Advisory Board.
The workers, however, are mostly Mexican-American. In the cannery, where the sweet smell of artichokes suffuses the air, the workers are primarily women. In the fields, men cut the vegetables from the stem and toss them into open backpacks, originally designed for broccoli pickers.
``Artichokes are a year-round thing,'' says Mr. Hopper. ``So the Hispanics who came in as workers in the artichoke industry stayed. Seventy-five percent of all the workers live here. The other 25 percent come in the spring, when the crop is heavy.
``Some of the older growers and shippers can see the day when their families won't want to go into artichokes, and Hispanic families will take over.''
But in the meantime, the old guard has not been replaced. Castroville, with its small, ranch-style houses, is a place to which people feel intensely loyal.
``It's interesting to note that people who are born and raised and go to school in Castroville have children who tend to move back to Castroville. Castroville is like an old shoe. It tends to be comfortable,'' says Marc del Piero of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.
Not that there aren't concerns.
In addition to ethnic divisions, there are gang problems and dropout problems in the schools. The main street, State Highway 183, has been a source of difficulties, some of them bureaucratic. The proximity of the Pacific Ocean means there is often salt in the irrigation water. Four or five years ago, there were too many mice in the fields.
And then there is the world economy - because the truth is, Castroville is not the artichoke center of the world. Italy, France, and Spain have far more acreage in artichokes than the US does, and Chile is gaining. Like Detroit, Castroville - related to the artichoke as Detroit is to the automobile - has to compete in the international marketplace.
``Fresh [artichokes] hold their market pretty well because they're the only game in the country,'' says Mr. del Piero. But with canned and frozen artichokes, it's another matter. Thirty years ago, for example, 40,000 to 50,000 cases a year were sold of marinated ``Cara Mia'' brand artichokes. Since then, consumption has increased markedly.
``Five years ago, we sold one million cases of the six-ounce jar,'' says Granville Perkins, executive vice-president of Castroville's Artichoke Industries Inc. ``But within two years, that figure was down to 600,000 cases,'' he adds.
The reason has nothing to do with culinary trends and everything to do with the Spanish peseta. Five years ago, according to Mr. Perkins, the American dollar was worth 70 pesetas.
When the value of the dollar rose to 186 pesetas, Spanish marinated artichokes became competitive. And Cara Mia, the No. 1 producer of artichoke products in the world, lost 40 percent of its retail market. This spring, sales were back up to 900,000 cases. But the writing on the wall is clear: Castroville has to compete.
None of that affects the day-to-day feeling in the town. Things seem to go on as they always have - with the possible exception that consumption of artichokes is up. Part of that is due to the festival. Not that anyone overplays its importance. ``The garlic festival, that's big,'' says Hopper. ``This is small time.''
Nonetheless, 40,000 artichoke aficionados show up, and their presence has made a difference. ``It used to be that there was a parade, a coronation ball, a chicken barbecue, and a lot of French fried artichoke hearts,'' says Perkins.
``Starting around 10 years ago, they started to do everything you can think of with artichokes.'' Last year's winning recipe was artichokes and calamari, and that was just one dish among many. People in Castroville really like artichokes.
But when the festival is over, and the visitors go home, things simmer down.
Castroville is a place where people worry about the ducklings in the fields, a place where they'll stop the truck by a clump of wild radish to point out a pair of cinnamon teal. It's a place where, when you ask, ``Are you from around here?'' folks will tell you, yes, their grandfather moved to Castroville in 1931.
Or no, they'll admit, they're from Prunedale - five miles away.