Stalin’s socks and Goethe’s thistles

6a00e5502c099d883400e553a9ed798833-800wi(NOTE – The International Year of the Potato was in 2008)

I know several people who are constantly being reminded that this year we are all supposed to be celebrating  the International Year of the Potato (Peru’s gift to the world). The Colorado Potato Beetle (Colorado’s gift to the world), the most serious insect potato pest, is also celebrating.

Very few people, however,  are aware that this is Global Artichoke Week (because it isn’t) and in view of this I have decided to post Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Artichoke.

This poem is one of his Elementary Odes. He wrote three books of Elementary Odes, which number almost 180 in total, covering such themes as the birds of Chile, conger eel soup, thread, numbers, laziness, a watch in the night, barbed wire, his socks, the liver, soap, the smell of firewood, bicycles, a large tuna in the market,   a ship in a bottle,  a village cinema, the colour green, the migration of birds, clouds, stones, scissors and tomatoes, maize, lemons and lots of other plants and foods.  My favourite of his vegetable odes is actually the Ode to the Onion, from which I recite every time I chop one:

y al cortarte
el cuchillo en la cocina
sube la única lágrima
sin pena.
Nos hiciste llorar sin afligirnos

(And when we cut you/with our knifes in the kitchen/it prompts the only tear/devoid of sorrow/You made us cry without distressing us)

He then goes on to say that he has sung of everything under the sun but for him the onion is more beautiful than a bird of dazzling colours.

I also believe that, by writing an ode to his socks, Neruda extended the possible scope of odes to cover almost anything.(Actually he could have gone a little further and written a poem to the holes in his socks).

So I would invite you to think about something you feel we need an ode for. Would you like to have verses to recite when you step into a puddle, watch your washing being spun or while you pour worcestershire sauce into tomato juice? Perhaps we can set up a Home Ode Delivery System, in the same way that you can phone out for pizza. Since I am prone to long-windedness, the first subject for an ode which it occurred to me we might need was “brevity”. But since I am prone to long-windedness (and repetition) I ended up writing three.

1st Ode to Brevity:

Oh, Brevity !

2nd Ode to Brevity:


And some of you will also have noticed the third Ode to Brevity.

There are a few very embarrassing lines of verse in Neruda’s writing.  I am thinking, in particular, of the place where he writes that in three rooms of the Kremlin there lives a man whose light is turned off late, the world and his country allowing him no rest.  When you think about that you can appreciate how close we came to getting an Ode to Stalin’s Socks (which, now I think about  it, is a poem which might actually fill a gap in world literature).

Still, this is Global Artichoke Week.  I  have conducted a lot of research into this plant and now can share a considerable amount of useless information with you. First of all, the scientific name is Cynara scolymus and recalls the name of a mythical Greek girl,  Cynara. Zeus took a shine to her and she resisted his advances. He must have been feeling a bit under the weather that day, because insteading of turning himself into a cloud or a bull and having his way as was his wont, he simply transformed  her into an artichoke.

I found a dozen pages on artichokes mentioning that Goethe didn’t like them and had dismissively stated that the “peasants in Italy eat thistles”, which I found believable until I remembered that he was a good natural scientist and probably wouldn’t confuse artichokes and thistles.  So I searched Goethe’s Italian Journey for artichokes and thistles and Artischocken and Disteln and I can say that I believe that there is no such statement. He does say he met two Sicilian noblemen on their way to Palermo to settle a lawsuit and mentions that they cut off the tops of thistles with their knives and ate them.  He also mentions artichokes at least twice, once to say that the Neapolitans consume so many vegetables that the leaves of cauliflower, broccoli, artichokes make up the greater part of the city’s refuse (a pity that is not the case nowadays) and then to say that his coachman in Sicily ate raw artichokes and kohrabi.

In the 16th Century  (but this comes from the same sources as the Goethe thistle quotation, so beware) women were not allowed to eat artichokes because of its supposed aphrodisiac properties, but Catherine de’ Medici ate them openly, in large quantities.

The French for artichoke- artichaut – and the Italian – carciofo- are both names for a firework which according to the description I have found has holes in its case and spins as it rises.  In Spanish however an alcachofa is a shower head. So be careful next time you have a shower.

In Italian a carciofo is a clumsy, dull-witted person.

Avoir un coeur d’artichaut (to have an artichoke heart) in French means to fall in love with everyone you meet, a concept  I don’t think is expressed so economically  in other languages.

I could add more, but not that much more. On the other hand, you could write an encyclopaedia about potatoes. I was wondering what you call an expert on potatoes. The expression seems to be potato scientist, although potatologist would be prettier, also because in German I suppose it would be something like a Kartoffelog (or Kartoffelolog ? or Kartoffolog ?). By the way, the German word for Kartoffel seems to be a deformation of Tartuffolo  (little truffle – an early Italian name for it). Of course, Germany and potatoes are two words which seem to chime together in most people’s minds. So I consulted Potato World’s statistics on potato consumption and was surprised to see that:


Top potato consumers, 2005

Quantity (t)

Kg per capita

1. China 52 882 000 1. Belarus 337.99
2. Russian Fed. 20 442 000 2 Kyrgyzstan 152.20
3. India 18 253 000 3. Russian Fed. 141.98
4. USA 16 399 000 4. Ukraine 141.62
5. United Kingdom 6 842 000 5. Latvia 136.14
6. Ukraine 6 659 000 6. Armenia 131.76
7. Germany 6 120 000 7. Lithuania 130.67
8. Poland 4 893 000 8. Poland 127.75
9. France 3 880 000 9. Rwanda 124.83
10. Bangladesh 3 746 000 10. Portugal 118.62


    in terms of per capita consumption, Germany is not even in the top ten, and is preceded by Armenia (!)  and Rwanda (!!).

But there is one thing much more surprising. Look at country number one: Belarus. It has a potato consumption of 337.99 kg (743.6 lbs) per person per year.  Unless they make baby food from potatoes, this means that each adult in Belarus is eating more than a kilogram per day. If mother does the shopping for a family of four once a week at a supermarket it means she has to lug home twenty-eight kilos (more than 60 lbs.) of spuds alone.

So what can account for this (and note that runner-up Kyrgyzstan has less than half of what Belarus tots up)? First I thought it must all go into the production of moonshine (samogon), but surely the Russian Federation and the Ukraine are just as busy doing that. Next I remembered reading that in the early 20th century the Brazilian railways ran out of coal and for a while all the engines ran on coffee (think of the smell in the stations), so perhaps they have potato-fuelled power plants in Belarus. But that  is no good either, because it would not count as consumption , I believe. I have decided therefore that I shall write to the International Potato Center (CIP). Apartado 1558 – Lima 12, Peru to request information.

(NOTE – Since I wrote this, Potato World has scaled down its estimates for Belarus’s per capita potato consumption to 181 kg per year. I find this very suspicious and am hoping that a good conspiracy theorist will provide a convincing explanation as to why this worldwide plot is being hatched.)

Finally, there is a dispute under way as to whether the potato really is Peru’s gift to the world. Chile says potatoes are originally from its own Chiloé region and now Bolivia has also chipped in. Surely today’s governments have very little to do with it. Couldn’t we just say it was a clever farmer’s gift to the world and bear in mind what the always wise Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska says about human borders and plants, animals, stones and clouds ? (Here in Polish and English).

And now at long last, here is Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Artichoke.

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