This is a story about a vegetable with an image problem, a farmer with a dream and a publicist with a mission.
The vegetable is the Jerusalem artichoke--a gnarled tuber that is neither from Jerusalem nor an artichoke, but is actually the root of a sunflower.
The farmer is Doug Ness, a Minnesotan recently transplanted to Idaho, the tuber capital of the country. With his company of five, Ness is hoping to make the Jerusalem artichoke as common as the carrot.
The publicist is Willetta Warberg, an Idaho marketing consultant who is determined to rid the Jerusalem artichoke of its misnomer.
Warberg and Ness have given an old vegetable another name: Sun Roots. They have applied to register Sun Roots as a trademark and are plugging their product as the latest "new" food.
The Ness-Warberg campaign has resulted in Sun Roots' being sold in the specialty-produce sections of some supermarkets.
Hopes to Widen Market
Ness certainly isn't the only one trying to develop a food market for the vegetable, which is similar in use to the potato. There have long been small-farm growers in other states.
Frieda Caplan, a gourmet-food wholesaler in Los Angeles, has been selling the tubers to supermarkets around the country under the name Sunchokes for 17 years. (Caplan said that although the name Sunchoke is a registered trademark, she has not tried to stop other companies from using it, in the hopes of widening the market.)
While the demand is still small, a glut in the supply of Jerusalem artichokes has made for a lot of confusion in the marketing, according to Caplan.
Ness estimates that there are about 40,000 acres of Jerusalem artichokes rooting in the Midwest, waiting for a market. To Ness, that market is fresh food.
Although the tuber has thus far been sold primarily in the specialty-food marketplace, Warberg hopes the vegetables will become more widely available and sell for less than $1 per pound--less than half of what they have sometimes sold for in the past.
But Caplan is doubtful that Jerusalem artichokes will turn into an overnight success. "It took 20 years for alfalfa sprouts to take off," she said.
Although Caplan sells her Sunchokes as a specialty-food item, she doesn't think that Warberg's strategy to reduce the price will affect sales. There has to be consumer interest or retailers won't buy it, she said.
Therein the Name Confusion
This species of sunflower produces tubers like the potato, but since the Jerusalem artichoke is a flower, it supports a tall stalk with yellow, daisy-like blossoms on the top. And therein lies the name confusion.
As the food-history books tell it, Samuel de Champlain and his band encountered the vegetable--a staple of North American Indians--during Champlain's explorations.
Champlain took the roots back to Europe, where cultivation spread to Italy, among other countries. There, the tubers were called girasoles, meaning turning to the sun. Somehow, the English corruption turned girasole into Jerusalem.
And as for the artichoke part of the name, some historians say Champlain found its flavor similar to the globe artichoke, that thistle-like green vegetable.
Ness believes it very possible that the name Jerusalem artichoke contributed to its unpopularity. Jerusalem gives it a religious connotation, he said, and the term artichoke makes people identify with a globe artichoke.
To Champlain, the tubers may have tasted like globe artichokes, but the French explorer wasn't necessarily a food maven. Eaten raw, their texture is not unlike the crunchy water chestnut, although they taste somewhat nuttier. Cooked, they become moist and somewhat like a regular chestnut.
As for appearance, they look more like a cross between a ginger root and a potato. Like potatoes, they can be boiled, baked, sauteed, or substituted in recipes that call for other root vegetables such as turnips.
Pickled or Pureed
They can be eaten with or without their skins, are good in stir-frys and can be pickled, pureed in soups or served raw in salads.
Nutritionally, the Jerusalem artichoke is a calorie chameleon. When the tubers are first harvested, their carbohydrates are stored in the form of inulin, which cannot be digested by the body. As the vegetables are stored, the nutritional picture changes. The inulin breaks down into a single molecule of glucose and a chain of fructose, which can be absorbed, says David Hadowitz of the Agriculture Department's Nutrient Data Research Bank.
As a result, the calorie count increases. According to the department's most recent information, 100 grams, or a little more than 3 ounces of Jerusalem artichoke, can range anywhere from 7 to 75 calories.
Hadowitz said this change makes it hard to compare the calories in Jerusalem artichokes to other vegetables. Dr. Joanne Slavin, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota, said that the tubers are lower in calories than many vegetables, although "nutritionally they're not all that special."