November 29, 2011

Jerusalem Artichokes



Although Thanksgiving is gone, I still want to write about food. I'm not ready yet for Christmas blogging! So here's an ode to an under-appreciated local food item: the Jerusalem artichoke.

This nutty tasting little tuber is native to eastern North America, and with the sunflower may be the only crops domesticated by the Indians of North America. (Corn, squash and beans were domesticated in Central and South America first, and then made their way north.)

Jerusalem artichoke Image from this blog.

The Jerusalem artichoke is not really an artichoke but is actually related to the sunflower. It also is not associated with the city of Jerusalem in any way. Then how the heck did it get its name?

In 1605, the French explorer Samuel Champlain came to Cape Cod looking to establish a French colony, but he abandoned the idea because the local Indians were somewhat hostile. Although the Indians weren't to his liking, he did appreciate their food, particularly a small tuber which they added to their stews. Champlain thought it tasted like an artichoke.

Bon appetit Champlain!

Champlain brought some of these "artichokes" back to France where they were quite popular. French farmers began to grow them, and they quickly spread to other countries including Italy. The Italians referred to both sunflowers and Champlain's artichokes with the word girasole, which means "turning towards the sun." When these girasole artichokes spread to England, their name gradually became corrupted to Jerusalem artichoke. They're still known by that name today, although they're sometimes also sold as sunchokes.

You can find Jerusalem artichokes in supermarkets (obviously!), but they do grow well in New England. I planted some next to my driveway a few years ago and they still come back each spring.

Special bonus Jerusalem artichoke fun fact: the Artichoke River in Newburyport, Massachusetts is an ancient Indian area named after this scrappy tuber!

The Artichoke River.

I found this information in Howard Russell's Indian New England Before the Mayflower.

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