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Flash in the Pan

The telltale fartychoke



Many relationship-type activities are conducted in private, with good reason. The world doesn't need to see you chasing each other around the kitchen with frying pans, or the details of how you make up. But during a particularly volatile phase of my wooing of Shorty, our privacy was invaded by three Jerusalem artichoke plants. They proceeded to broadcast our secrets to the whole neighborhood.

To anybody who's grown Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes, it will come as no surprise that they intruded on our relationship: it's one of the most invasive crops you could ever plant.

You only have to plant sunchokes once, and if you change your mind it takes considerable effort to remove them. That's a good thing if you're a sunchoke fan, but even their most fervent supporters recommend growing them in a separate, dedicated area, so they don't take over your whole garden.

The plant is a close relative of the sunflower, and it looks the part, though its flowers are smaller. Underground, sunchoke roots are crowded with tubers that taste something like a cross between a potato and a water chestnut, with a hint of sunflower aroma. The tubers can be habit-forming, especially if prepared correctly. But be warned, they're often called Jerusalem "fartychokes." And rightly so.

Many people have a hard time digesting the carbohydrate inulin present in sunchokes, and this can cause intestinal bloating and flatulence. Some people are unaffected. Beano and similar products are said to help. To be safe, if you've never tried sunchokes, it's best to introduce them to your diet slowly. And as with garlic and beans, it's best if you and your sweetheart are on the same page. But flatulence, or intolerance thereof, played no part in my dating drama with Shorty.

The drama started when a friend gave me a Jerusalem artichoke from his garden in Minnesota. I cut it into three pieces and planted them in my shallot patch. A few months later they were growing vigorously. Meanwhile, I had, like a moron, broken up with Shorty. Lucky for me I came to my senses and decided to give her another shot. She came over one day to help me weed the garden.

"You could weed the shallot patch," I suggested, as I tackled the strawberries. It did not occur to me to ask her to spare the Jerusalem artichokes. I thought that was obvious. A few minutes later I wandered over to see how she was doing. She had already pulled two of my sunchokes and her hands were wrapped around the third. "No!" I pleaded. "Not the Jerusalem artichokes!"

"I thought they were sunflowers," she gasped.

Sunflowers grow like weeds in my garden. I have a hard time pulling them because they're so nice to have around, but they create a lot of shade, reproduce bountifully, and can quickly become a problem.

  • Photo courtesy of Kok Robin

Shorty thought she was doing a good thing by removing what she thought were sunflowers. But knowing that didn't take away the sting of losing two of my three babies.

Shorty felt bad for screwing up. I felt bad that she felt bad. We both wanted to somehow undo what had been done. We replanted the sunchokes, tied them to stakes, and every day for weeks I watered them. Soon, these two once-uprooted plants grew into a metaphor for our two tenuous attempts at love, past and present. As the summer progressed, we kept our eyes on the plants, as if their ability to hang on and prosper would shed light on our future.

True to form, the uprooted chokes would not croak. But neither did they thrive. Tiny leaves sprouted from the naked stalks, where once robust leaves had cast broad shadows.

Alas, bitter shadows descended upon our hearts toward summer's end, and Shorty dumped me. I couldn't help but notice the symmetry between the two hurting sunchokes and our two failed attempts at love. And it felt like the whole neighborhood could see it too.

Without Shorty around I had plenty of time on my hands to ponder questions like, "Why are they called Jerusalem artichokes?" They aren't artichokes, and they aren't from Jerusalem.

It turns out that explorer Samuel de Champlain first noticed them in a Native American garden on Cape Cod in 1605. Champlain took a liking to them, thought they tasted like artichokes, and sent some home to his native France, whence they eventually found their way to Italy. The Italian word for sunflower is girasole, which means "follows the sun." Girasole sounds a lot like "Jerusalem." One thing led to another, and the name stuck.

Even after that extensive linguistic exploration, I still had time to kill, so I made sunchoke soup.

To make four servings, scrub one pound of Jerusalem artichokes under cold water, slice them into 1/4-inch rounds, and toss them in the juice of one lemon. Melt four tablespoons butter in a pan, add one chopped leek, one chopped shallot, one carrot sliced into 1/2-inch rounds, and the sliced chokes and lemon juice. Cover and cook over mellow heat for 20 minutes. Add three cups chicken or vegetable stock, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon crushed black pepper. Cover and simmer until everything is soft. Puree everything to a smooth consistency, ideally with a submersible blender. Adjust the consistency with water, stir in 1/2 cup (or more) heavy cream or mayo, and serve.

I brought Shorty a bowl of sunchoke soup, and it brought a smile to her face, which brought a smile to my face. I can't say if it was the soup, but we decided to give it one more try.

But what about the two withered plants, you ask, and their ominous forecast? I point silently to the third Jerusalem artichoke, the one Shorty didn't yank, the third strike we didn't need. It grew almost 10 feet tall. And like the tubers it left in my garden, to this day our love just won't go away.

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