Sunchoke on this

All the problems in our food supply – agricultural, nutritional, political – can be traced back to one unfortunate truth about the human condition.

Literally. Every problem. One truth. And I’m going to tell you what it is.

Ready? Here it is: Jerusalem artichokes are not delicious.

I know, I know. You don’t believe me yet – I mean, you believe that they’re not delicious, but you don’t believe that’s the source of every problem in our food supply. But you will. Oh, you will.

Before we get to Jerusalem artichokes and their lack of deliciousness, we have to talk about plants that *are* delicious. And there are so many! Strawberries. Tomatoes. Basil. All delicious. Ditto asparagus, peaches, and sugar snap peas. Then there are the plants that not everyone would classify as delicious, but are definitely edible and sometimes tasty, like collards and green peppers, broccoli and lima beans.

But all of those plants, and almost every other produce section denizen you’d care to name, have one thing in common: they’re high-maintenance. The things we love to eat are tender plants. They like to be coddled and fed, sheltered and protected. They are sissies. We’d have no strawberries, no tomatoes, no eggplant, if those plants had to fend for themselves. This is a problem that comes home to every one of us who tries to grow food. I don’t care if you’re growing thousands of acres of corn, or a windowbox of cilantro – you know that your crop is utterly dependent on you.

Every now and then, though, you’ll hear about a plant – a bona fide, edible plant – that can hold its own. You plant it once, and it comes back every year, stronger. The nice lady at the garden store warns you not to plant it too close to your tender plants, because it’ll take over.

And that is what I like to hear: It’ll take over. In the Venn diagram of plants we like to eat, and plants that fend for themselves, there is very little overlap. But that little sliver is where I live.

I first found that sliver as a kid, growing up in a raised ranch in Poughkeepsie, New York, with parents who weren’t horticulturally inclined. Some tomato plants went in on the south-facing side of the house for at least a couple of years, but I don’t remember any actual tomatoes.

What I do remember is mint.

Mint is one of those take-over plants. Plant it once, and it comes back next year bigger, better, and mintier. We had a big, healthy, aromatic patch of it.

Fast forward three decades, to my next gardening experience. Well, actually, to Kevin. Kevin has been responsible for all my adult gardening experiences. And Kevin has much more horticultural fortitude than I do. He’s willing to tackle the sissy plants.

And so, when we lived in New York, we grew tomatoes and cucumbers in whiskey barrels on the roof of our apartment building. When we moved to Cape Cod, a garden was one of the first improvements we made to our property. We’ve grown a lot of food here.

But it ain’t easy. Check the handy-dandy USDA geological database, and you’ll find that our house is built on what’s called ‘Carver coarse sand.’ You don’t need to understand the ‘Carver’ part (hell, I don’t) because the ‘coarse’ and the ‘sand’ are perfectly adequate descriptions of what we’re trying to grow vegetables in. We amend and amend and amend, but the Carver coarse sand, with an assist from the hilly terrain (down which most of our amendments tend to slide), defeats most of our best efforts.

Which is why, last year, we tried a new approach. We’d restrict our sissy-plant garden to the raised beds and the hoophouse, where we had some control over the soil. In our sloped, uncontained garden, we’d go with edible perennials. Those plants in the sliver in the Venn diagram.

But which ones?

We did some research. Google ‘edible perennials’ and you’ll come up with all sorts of options. Almost all of which are, indeed, perennial. It’s that ‘edible’ part that turns out to be problem. Lots of plants are technically edible. Tasty is another story entirely. Lists of edible perennials are filled with plants nicknamed “poor man’s spinach.”

I have a little tip for those of you considering edible perennials. Thing’s get called “poor man’s spinach” because they are not as good as spinach. If they were as good as spinach, they’d have their own, more dignified name. “Chard,” for example. Or “escarole.” “Poor man’s” is a tip-off.

We were insufficiently tipped off, and one of those poor-man’s plants, Good King Henry, went in (poor men, it appears, are stuck with hairy, nasty greens). So did sorrel. Sweet Cecily. Rhubarb, of course. And Jerusalem artichokes.

Jerusalem artichokes. Worst vegetable ever. Except maybe kohlrabi.

I was warned. “They’ll take over,” everyone said. But Carver coarse sand limits the take-over potential of even the most aggressive plants. We’re the only gardeners ever to have a failed crop of horseradish. Still, just to be on the safe side, we planted only two.

They grew, as promised, like weeds. In the fall, I harvested a bumper crop of a really uninspiring vegetable.

Which leads me to a very important question. Why did some marketing genius decide that ‘sunchoke’ was a better name than ‘Jerusalem artichoke?’ I can understand why you’d want to find an alternative name, seeing as the tuber in question is related neither to Jerusalem nor to artichokes, but I think that would have provided ample support to change them name completely, as I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that including “choke” in the name a vegetable is a bad move. I get the “sun,” which comes from the relationship to sunflowers. But calling a tuber that grows below ground “sun” anything is a stretch.

Whatever you call them, Jerusalem artichokes taste like a tantalizing mix of Styrofoam and dirt. They join my two other least-favorite vegetables, jicama and water chestnuts, on the Axis of Blandness. There is nothing to love about a Jerusalem artichoke. It’s even worse than kohlrabi.

So, last fall, I dug them up. I emphatically didn’t want a garden overrun with Jerusalem artichokes. I took the warnings seriously. I excavated thoroughly. I overwintered confidently.

In the spring, there they were.

I realized my mistake. I excavated where the plants actually were. But Jerusalem artichokes do something utterly mysterious below ground. The shoots came up a couple of yards – yards! – from where the plant had been.

I started digging. Again. And I dug for a long time. One of the reasons I don’t care much for gardening is that there’s a lot of digging involved, but I’m often willing to do it because the payoff is (at least sometimes) good things to eat. There’s a certain ignominy in deliberately digging up a plant you put in the ground yourself.

The experience left me with a profound respect for the Jerusalem artichoke. It can grow, heartily, in soil that supports very little else, and with absolutely no assistance. I wondered if it just so happened that Carver coarse sand was the perfect environment for Jerusalem artichokes, so I did a little reading. A recent issue of Biotechnology Reports included a paper on the subject, which said that Jerusalem artichokes had a number of “advantageous characteristics,” including “high growth rate, good tolerance to frost, drought and poor soil, strong resistance to pests and plant diseases, with minimal to zero fertilizer requirements.” And that’s science, my friends. Peer-reviewed.

You will notice that “deliciousness” was completely absent from the list.

The fact that we grew a whole bunch of tubers – more than I could dig up, obviously – led me to wonder how many of them could be grown on an acre, and it turns out it could be as much as ten tons.

Ten tons. You know how many people that could feed? All 17 who actually like Jerusalem artichokes, a gajillion times over.

I rest my case.

28 people are having a conversation about “Sunchoke on this

  1. Hmpf. I like Jerusalem artichokes. Preferably pureed with garlic butter, but plain boiled with a little olive oil is fine. They’re certainly nicer than mashed potato. And what’s wrong with kohlrabi and jicama? Nice crunchy additions to any salad!

    But you’re right about the name. I can understand wanting to get away from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but ‘sunchokes’ is the kind of silliness normally dreamed up by an overpaid advertising agency.

    • Ken, I wish you joy of your Jerusalem artichokes. I’m sure I’ll hear from the other 16 people who like them, too. I bet you even like water chestnuts!

  2. Put me down as one of the 17. I like water chestnuts also!

    I planted some a year or two ago, too close together as it turned out, now they are growing in a ring about 10 ft in diameter. Hopefully this year I will get some nice flowers and maybe this fall I will dig some up and see if mine taste as good as those my friends produced years ago.

  3. I like them, but it’s not the kind of vegetable that I seek out. I have had them probably 3-4 in the last decade. 14 to go!

    • Um, there are lots of things that are great to eat with “plenty of butter and salt.” It would be great if we could find some seriously weedy species like this to feed the world – but we still need at least the butter part to make it work!

  4. 13, and for the record, Im a bit shocked. anecdotally, you guysll eat anything. But I also find water chesnuts and jicama delightful. speaking of eating, I’ll be in town end of September for a bit.

  5. Yup. Diiiisgusting. I think one of my horticulture teachers told me that Jerusalem was a misinterpretation by the English of their Italian name: Girasole, meaning sun or sunflower? Hence, sunchoke I suppose. In my house they’re called fartichokes for their after effects, if indeed you do manage to choke one down. We grow them as cheap cover crops for our pheasants (who won’t eat them either).

    On the plus side, pigs happily eat them. If you don’t want your sunchoke patch any more or it becomes too invasive, fence some pigs on it. Surely the best recipe for sunchokes is to turn them into bacon.

  6. Finally! Someone willing to take on the “perennial food garden” myth! I love permaculture as much as the next gal, and have a lovely little apple-tree-guild thing going, but whenever I scan the lists of “crops” to put into one’s “food forest” I shake my head in amazement. Sunchokes, gogi berries, lovage, horseradish, sorrel, the aforementioned Good King Henry – have the people recommending these crops actually ever tasted these things? I always thinks it’s so funny when you read a description of a certain edible perennial along the lines of: “For hundreds of years, European peasants cultivated ( insert medieval sounding name here ), where it featured heavily in pottages and stews. Though it has recently fallen out of favour, we have he seeds available now!” It fell out of favour because other foods that didn’t have to be cooked to death in a pottage became available, and now we gratefully eat those instead.

    So often, the novelty of a food crop tends to blind us to it’s actual usefulness. A good chunk of the berries so widely praised in permaculture circles need their weight in sugar added to them to make them even palatable – super sustainable. Have you processed a bushel of black walnuts lately? How did that go for you?

    I’m not a hater! I have lots of rhubarb, black currants, asparagus, strawberries etc. in my garden, but I’m not trying to live off these foods alone. Yay to Tamar for saying out loud what we all know – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

  7. So, all you JA defenders are coming out of the woodwork. But I don’t really hear a lot of actual defense. As Steve noted, it doesn’t count if you eat them with enough butter to make them palatable. You could deep-fry them, too, and that would work. If you’re going to defend ’em, you have to actively enjoy them. With minimal butter.

    Jen, thanks for the etymological aside! Crystal, thanks for an excellent Grigson reference! And, Emily, I think it’s you and me against the world in the permaculture department. I want so much for ‘perennial vegetable’ to be a robust category, but it’s really just downhill from asparagus.

  8. I’m curious how you used the Good King Henry, because I’ve seen it described as a green, but the instructions that came with my seed indicated that you’re supposed to eat the spring shoots, like asparagus. So maybe eaten at the right time makes all the difference. In any case, maybe I’m not so crushed that they didn’t germinate after all.

    I’m with Jen on the girasole origin of the plant; Jerusalem artichokes are in the helianthus family, which are sunflowers. Helianthus are known for growing from even the smallest bit of root, so every time you cut through roots, you’re creating more plants. It’s good to know that you can feed pigs with them, though, although I would seriously not want to be down wind from the results.

    • I didn’t use Good King Henry, because it was awful. If it comes up again next year (as, I’m sure, it will), I’ll try the spring shoot technique. It sounds much more promising. Thanks for the tip!

      We did throw a few JAs in the pig pen, in the hopes that they’d propagate there for the next time we do pigs. So far, no dice. But I may try harder.

  9. Jerusalem Artichokes are what the rats and cockroaches will eat when humans are finally wiped off the face of the earth. That, and all the leftover fruitcake. They do have pretty flowers, though.

  10. Well…I think I am 12! No need for butter on my chokes. Just a quick roll in some oil and salt, then baked high and fast until they are crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, with an awesome nutty flavour. When we roast a batch (and we grow lots of them) as soon as they are cooked they are devoured. Best ever roast veg!

    BUT we do have pretty good soil after all the years of farming, and perhaps this affects the final flavour.

    • Cath, I promise that, should a JA ever find its way into my kitchen again, I will try your method. I will admit that you can make it at least sound tasty.

  11. PS we are not on the permaculture bandwagon either. So much work, over so many years for slow slow gains along with a following of high headed idealists that get under our shirt.

  12. Count me among the 17 who like JA … as well as Kohlrabi and water chestnuts. I’m just a “crunch” kind of girl. I also like horseradish and sorrel. You can keep the jicama, though.

  13. sally sievers says:

    Just had jicama tonight! The only way is in sticks and with clam dip (cream cheese, chopped clams, quite a lot of worcestershire) From my mother, raised in Montana, retired to Arizona
    And one of the reasons people don’t like it is that when it’s good it has a subtle sweetness, besides all that great crunch, but it’s really hard to tell a good one in a grocery store far from Arizona, and most often they’re brownish and tasteless, a waste of your money

  14. Didn’t i have a sunchoke in a salad that one time? I thought? And it was kind of nice? Only now I did a google-image search and they didn’t look anything like what I was thinking about. Okay, I retract my possible membership in the 17. Carry on!

  15. *grin* I’m one of those 17 humans who find J.Chokes edible and good. Fortunately our ~400 pigs _love_ the tubers, the stalks, the leaves and the heads. More over the pigs are messy eaters leaving little bits in the soil that then come back the next year. I like to grow easy things like J.Chokes, sunflowers, pumpkins, broccoli, pork chops, eggs, zucchini and fortunately I eat, and like, nearly everything. Easy is good.

  16. Richard Tasgal says:

    I like sunchokes — not raw or lightly cooked, though, such as in a salad. I use them in place of potatoes, mostly when cooking a chicken: marinate with white wine, garlic, paprika, and thyme, put sunchokes and onions on the bottom of the pan, and roast. They take longer to cook than potatoes, so cut them up and perhaps take the chicken out of the pan and cook more until the sunchokes and onions are soft and well burnt. OK, I concede that you taste the chicken and onions much more than the sunchokes, but you do taste the sunchokes. and the difference between them and potatoes.

    • Richard Tasgal says:

      I realize I should clarify: The dish comes out better this way than with potatoes. More effort, though, mostly in cleaning the sunchokes. Causes gas, too.

  17. My understanding is they are related to sunflowers and on top of that sun is easier and shorter than Jerusalem thus I suspect why they get called sunchokes. I’ve heard them called other things but not printable in a family forum.

    I love Jerusalem artichokes. To eat, sure, but better is to grow them for our pigs. They are more resilient even than thistles and burdock, two thing that our pigs also love but get devastated by the pigs grazing them. I do time my grazing rotations to promote the sunchoke’s survival, moving the pigs in at the right time and out quickly while they’ve still left fragments in the soil that will regrow next year. The pigs eat the flower heads, the leaves, the stalks and most of the tubers. Very good pig food.

    You mention mint and that is another favorites of mine because of it’s resilience. We drink a lot of mint tea, year round. Raspberries, blackberries, apples, pears, asparagus, rhubarb, chicory and many nut trees are also delicious tough customers that thrive in our soils and climate. I like growing easy things.

  18. I have ventured to eat “sunchokes” as a roasted veg, and found it palatable, but could hardly stand myself following the digestion… I planted some in an old half barrel and they only half grew, which is fine with me.
    As for the black walnut thing, we had a bumper crop this year, and finally I was ready for them. I used those chemical gloves of questionable origin, to pick them and skin them. After the 3 or 4 weeks to cure, I use a huge pipecutter to slice those suckers easily. It is pretty satisfying…the slicing…and the taste is delicious. Worth the effort, particularly if you are mad about something. Love your blog!

  19. Sorry, I like them, quite a lot ! They do grow like weeds and takeover but pickled, roasted to a crisp or slowly, I think they’re quite delish 🙂 Peeling seems to help with the ‘wind’, the only real problem I see. PS. This opinion is all the way from down south, Cape Town, South Africa. Great blog, thanks.

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