"Jerusalem artichokes...are dressed divers wayes, some boile them in water...others bake them in pies...others some other way as they are led by their skill in Cookerie. But in my judgment, which way soever they be drest and eaten they stir up and cause a filthie loathesome stinking winde within the body, thereby causing the belly to be much pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men."
--John Goodyer, 17th century English gardener

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Jerusalem Artichokes

(Helianthus tuberosus)

In the words of Jane Grigson, British food writer, "Jerusalem artichokes...are none the worse for not being artichokes and having nothing at all to do with Jerusalem." In fact, they are natives of North America and are a member of the sunflower family--which is why you can often find them in the market under the name "sunchokes."

It was French explorer Samuel de Champlain himself who started the confusion, writing in 1603 of "roots which...taste like artichokes" in Canada. Then, not long after, explorers took them back to Europe, and called them, interchangeably, the Italian girasole (literally, "turning to the sun") and the French artichauts de Canada. By the curious vagaries of history, girasole turned into "Jerusalem" and artichauts stuck.

So how about their other name: topinambur? A business ploy. In 1613 six members of the "Topinambous" tribe were brought from Brazil to France as curiosities...and an enterprising greengrocer capitalized on their popularity by naming the vegetable after them.

At first these roots were the rage of cultivated Europe--but they soon fell out of favor. John Parkinson, apothecary to King James I, complained in 1629, "They are by reason of their great increasing, growne to be so common here with us at London, that even the most vulgar begin to despise them, whereas when they were first received among us, they were dainties for a Queene." Before long they were relegated to the barn as livestock fodder. Only in the 19th century did they wiggle their way back into haute cuisine.

The plant really looks like a sunflower--growing 6-10 feet tall on a single stalk and topped by a yellow flower, and in any type of soil, even sand. It is often used as a windbreak to protect tender plants...or as a beanpole in the garden...and it can be harvested soon after planting. It grows wild in Eastern North America from Nova Scotia to Georgia and Alabama. But it's that round, crunchy, and knobby root--or tuber--that we scout out in the market. Raw, it's crunchy and crisp--wonderful in salads and as a garnish in clear soups. Cooked--and don't overcook as it will toughen--it is tender and, yes, delicately artichoke tasting.

Interestingly, Jerusalem artichokes are starch-free. Their carbohydrates (inulin) do not convert to sugar in the body, so they can be eaten with abandon by the diet-conscious and by diabetics. Of course the very indigestibility of inulin has given it a name for "filthy loathsome stinking wind"....

Many thanks to Ilona Webb for her contributions to this story.