Sunday, September 25, 2011

In Ditches and Dishes: Picture a Sunflower on Your Plate

Have you traveled too fast along a two-lane country road and missed the thin yellow sunflowers growing in adjacent low areas? The next time you see a patch of the flowers, slow down and embrace a species of sunflower native to the South. It is often known as Jerusalem artichoke, a name very misleading because the plant is not an artichoke and it is not from Jerusalem. To avoid confusion, it’s more recently been called a sunroot or sunchoke.

Its blooms look like miniature sunflowers, providing a bright yellow sight to the highway landscape. The plant grows from 4 to 9 feet, but the real jewel is underground — a tuber, which is about three inches long and at least one inch thick, that resembles a ginger root. The perfect place for me to slow down and take a picture was in mid-September at the crossroads of Glendon, NC, where sunflowers were surrounding highway signs on a rural road between Carthage and Siler City.

Fortunately, Sir Walter Raleigh was not traveling too fast when he observed Native Americans cultivating sunroots in 1585 in an area of Virginia. However, it was French explorer Samuel de Champlain who took the plant to Europe in the early 1600s and created interest across the Atlantic Ocean by describing its taste similar to an artichoke. The French are also given credit for cultivating sunchokes on a large scale. The Italians named it girasole (meaning sunflower — literally turning to the sun); however, the English transformed the name into something familiar enough to pronounce (Jerusalem).

Early use of the vegetable is also documented in The Virginia Housewife, originally published in 1838 and widely regarded as the first Southern cookbook. It recommends boiling and dressing the tuber in ways “directed for potatoes” and covering it “with thick melted butter, and a nice white or brown sauce.” For many generations, sunchokes were not popular because they had a reputation as a poor person’s vegetable (a common weed with an edible root), although they are the most important root cash crop to originate in North America. In addition, an old wives’ tale linked them incorrectly to leprosy (the tuber’s shape was similar to distorted fingers deformed by the disease).

However, during World War II, the sunchoke gained favor in several countries because it could be bought without a ration card. Although now cultivated much more extensively in Europe than America, the tuber is making a comeback in the South because it has a slightly sweet and nut-like flavor (similar to water chestnuts). In addition, its potato-like texture makes it a favorite as a potato substitute for diabetics.

My wife and I first learned about “Jerusalem artichokes” on a Southern Foodways Alliance field trip in Tennessee. Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, NC, and named by the James Beard Awards in the final four for Best Chef Southeast, was mentioning how an 85-year-old lady supplies his restaurant with Jerusalem artichokes and gave fresh variety to his menu.

Many cooks and chefs in the South now use the vegetable as a main ingredient in a relish (with onion and red bell pepper). For example, Smith’s relish recipe is in several cookbooks, including a community cookbook published by SFA, which conducts events that relate foodways to culture. At a foodways film festival in Greenville, SC, Joe and Heidi Trull of Grits & Groceries provided samples of their relish as part of a tasting event before SFA documentary films were shown. Other prominent chefs and writers are also featuring the tuber in their cookbooks such as The New Southern Garden Cookbook by Sheri Castle, whose Southern food classes at A Southern Season I’ve attended.

Because the roots of the sunchoke to the South sometimes are often missed by casual readers of both old and new Southern cookbooks, its regional connection should be celebrated more. As I’ve learned more about the plant, I look for it in recipes as well as on the roadside. It’s a plant that still enhances the flavors of the South.

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