Jerusalem artichoke

At first glance, the serving bowl held sausages, another meat in a feast of meats, platters or bowls of whole roasted quail or mutton with caper sauce. A closer look showed that the “sausages” were, in fact, the menu-promised Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed but not skinned, rough and trailing roots. They were our one respite in that course from meat, meat, and more meat. The surfeit was the main feature, a Pepys-themed feast organized by Fergus Henderson for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

The Jerusalem artichokes were not sausages, but neither are they from Jerusalem or artichokes. They are roots of a plant in the sunflower family, Helianthus tuberosus, and the Italian word for “sunflower” is “girasole”, which sounds somewhat like “Jerusalem” in English. (The alternate etymology, according to The Oxford Companion to Food is that it’s a misunderstanding of Terneuzen, the Dutch town, better known as the home port of one version of The Flying Dutchman, from which they were first imported to England.) They do taste somewhat artichoke-like, although the plants are not related.

Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, are natives of the Americas, Peru originally, although the first European to document them was Samuel de Champlain, in Canada. Their French name, topinambur, preserves the name of a Brazilian tribe, the Topinambous, six of whose members were brought to France in 1613, along with their local crop.

In England, they are used, punningly, to make Palestine Soup, bacon optional, of which A.E. Housman, the poet, wrote, “I was however agreeably surprised by a Palestine soup which had not the faintest trace of artichoke.” (Letters, 14 Sept. 1929. Found via the OED.) Jerusalem artichokes are robust easy to grow, a fact not unrelated to why Samuel de Champlain found them in Canada. Their weed-like profligacy early on inspired Robert Grenville, puritan and Roundhead general, who, in A Discourse opening the nature of that Episcopacie which is exercised in England (I. vi 16), wrote that “Error being like the Jerusalem-Artichoake; plant it where you will, it overrunnes the ground and choakes the Heart.”

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*© S. Worthen 2009