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The Jerusalem Artichoke and Its Strange Story

Jerusalem Artichoke - Helianthus tuberosus

There are so many things about a Jerusalem artichoke to love, but I could never say that to my neighbor, Marie-Odile.  She was an adolescent during World War Two, living in the town of Louviers which was occupied by German forces and later burned to the ground.  She had so many stories of her life in this dangerous, uncertain, hungry time, and one of them revolved around Jerusalem artichokes.

No Potatoes for the French

You see, the occupiers loved potatoes and conscripted them onto their plates the way they conscripted a portion of the French to work in their factories.  This left none for the French who, we know, are a nation of potato eaters.  It was a hungry time for the nationals, and they turned to what they could grow easily and quickly.  That happened to be Jerusalem artichokes, here called topinambours. 

Truckloads of Jerusalem Artichokes

I always think of her story when I see Jerusalem artichokes.  They were so plentiful then because the plant grows like a weed, its tall flowers a joy, its roots generating dozens of tubers.  Gardeners love/hate them because they take over; for a hungry population, it was the perfect solution.  I love them, but I can imagine hating them too, if they weren’t beautifully firm and reddish on the outside, juicy and pure white inside. 

Interestingly Weird History

The Jerusalem artichoke has an interestingly weird history.  A hardy explorer named Samuel Champlain found himself in what would one day be Quebec, in the early 17th century, and found the tuber in the fields of the Iroquois there.   Captivated by its abundance and its earthy flavor, he sent some over the sea to France, labelling them as “Canadian truffles.” They took the country by storm, it is said.

The Tupinambas and the Topinambour

At the same time, members of a Brazilian tribe the Tupinambas, were touring France as curiosities.  The French thought that the tuber and the tribe were related, and they contorted the name of both to come up with the moniker topinambours, to refer to both.  That is what the tuber is called today in France.  It was popular for a long time, had its sad period, and is now bouncing back as a revered “heirloom” vegetable, appreciated for its crunch and its artichoke-reminiscent flavor.

And the Girasole

Why do Americans call it Jerusalem artichoke?  Once again, because of linguistic contortion.  The flower of the tuber looks like a small, rather delicate and very cheerful sunflower or, as the Italians who grew it said, “girasole”.  Girasole became Jerusalem to the un-Italian ear, and the name stuck.

The Vegetable Only a Mother Could Love

Jerusalem artichokes are the vegetables only a mother could love, because they look as though they’ve been coughed up from a lesser time.  Knobby and fat through the middle, one must navigate a rude, uneven exterior to get to the delicious interior, and not everyone wants to.  It’s worth it though, for the hints of artichoke and earth in just the right proportion.  I’ve never met a palate that didn’t swoon for the Jerusalem artichoke, and I don’t think I ever will. They’re just so alluringly delicious that everyone always wants more.

Cooking Tip

Cooking tip: The Jerusalem artichoke browns quickly, so if you’re working in advance, place them, peeled, in acidulated water.  You can also cook them “a blanc,” with some lemon juice and flour in the water, which will help maintain their pure white color.

Bon Appétit.

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