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.
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.