III: Sunchoke

A funny sunflower tuber inspired an opinionated chef.

Jerusalem artichoke. Photo by Shane Hoving / Unsplash
Jerusalem artichoke. Photo by Shane Hoving / Unsplash

Good morning. Today is tridi, the 13th of Brumaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate le topinambour, a sunflower that grows a potato.

This plant is most commonly known as a Jerusalem artichoke in English even though it has only a distant relation to artichokes and is native to North America, not the Middle East. The unusual name may be a corruption of the Italian girasole (sunflower) or from the original colonists' religious fervor. The French name topinambour is likewise from the confused conflagration of all things New World, when a tribe from Brazil called the Tupinambá happened to visit the Vatican at the same time sunchokes from Canada were on display as an important sustenance crop. 

The sunchoke has had many prominent backers in its time. Indeed, the name "sunchoke" itself invented by American Frieda Caplan fifty years ago to help sell the thing better. (And, to be honest, it's a far superior name than the accidental one it still carries around, as well as closer to the translation of the word used by indigenous peoples.) The infamous Auguste Escoffier, practical inventor of haute cuisine, played on its Jerusalem associations by putting it in a creamy soup he called, har har, Palestine Soup.

But Escoffier's recipe was just a hazelnut addition to an older one by another prominent French chef who came to fame in the English-speaking world, one who is less well-known today and had a completely unhinged character. He picked up sunchokes when their popularity in Italy was first starting to bleed into the rest of Europe and – as he did with many strange ingredients – pureed them into a soup that positively blew minds. He was a soup artist long before Seinfeld's cranky simulacrum, so much so that people gossiped about the effect his soups had on ladies and nobles.

I'd like you to meet Louis Eustache Ude.