Jerusalem Artichokes - History
Champlain: the original foodie
The story of the Jerusalem Artichoke as we now know it begins in 1605, with Samuel de Champlain and his explorations of the New World. Along with exploring, it seems he was a foodie as well - his maps of the time are inset with cartouches depicting foods of the native inhabitants. Squash and corn are shown, as well as what is probably the earliest depiction of a Jerusalem Artichoke plant. In his notes, Champlain describes seeing "an abundance of Brazilian beans, many edible squashes of various sizes, Tobacco, and roots which they cultivate, the latter having the taste of Artichokes." Samples of the "Canadian Truffles", as he called them, were sent back to France.
A case of Bad Timing
At the same time the Canadian Truffles were being welcomed by the general public, the French royal court was being introduced to a small captive contingent of Tupinamba, a fierce Brazilian tribe with cannibalistic tendencies, who had never eaten Jerusalem Artichokes. This exotic group generated considerable excitement among the general public, and vendors, looking to market this new root crop from the New World, coined the exotic new tubers Topinambours or Topinambous. They quickly gained popularity and spread throughout Europe. In the French-speaking world, they are still referred to as Topinambours (which, as an aside, is Justin Trudeau's favorite French word).
Lost in Translation: Italian to English
Due to its resemblance to the Sunflowers, Italians began calling JA's "Girasole Articiocco", the word Girasole being Italian for Sunflower. One theory put forward suggests that when the plant was brought over from Italy, the British had difficulty pronouncing the word Girasole, which was subsequently corrupted to "Jerusalem". Palestine Soup, a popular soup from the time that calls for Jerusalem Artichokes as a major ingredient, is a spinoff on this mispronunciation. They definitely weren't eating Palestine Soup in Palestine.
The Potato did it
Jerusalem Artichokes enjoyed widespread popularity as they spread across the continent and were a major source of nourishment. Unfortunately, a hot new tuber from Peru was about to make an appearance that would put JA's on the back burner: the potato. Today, the potato ranks as the worlds 4th most important food crop, after corn, rice and wheat, while Jerusalem Artichokes are seen as an obscure artisinal crop. But when there are potato shortages (such as there was in WWII) or crop failures, guess who comes to the rescue? Good ol' Jerusalem Artichoke.
In recent years, Jerusalem Artichokes have had somewhat of a renaissance, particularly as the incidence of obesity and diabetes has surged. Jerusalem Artichokes primarily store their carbohydrates as Inulin, which a great food choice for diabetics since it levels out blood sugar spikes (humans actually can't digest Inulin, but the bacteria in your gut thrive on it).
Researchers are also looking at putting Jerusalem Artichokes to work producing ethanol. It turns out that if done properly (harvesting both the tubers and the stalks), JA's can produce more alcohol per acre than any other crop, including corn. Impressive!
And as people begin to value the idea of crop diversification and food independence, increasing numbers of home gardeners are turning to Jerusalem Artichokes for their ease of growing, lack of pest and disease and great taste. The battle versus the potato has begun!