Getting to the root of the matter

SOME guests bring flowers to dinner parties, some chocolates, or a book. Six years ago, my friends Charlotte and Michael brought six muddy objects. Scrubbed, nubby, and beige, they resembled ginger roots. Jerusalem artichokes from their garden! These vegetables have nothing to do with the Middle East. Rather, the Italian word for sunflower, girasole, apparently sounded to Anglo-Saxon ears like ``Jerusalem.'' They neither grow from traditional sunflower seeds, nor resemble thistly artichokes.

In my huge 1941 Webster's rather stilted language, the plant is:

a perennial American sunflower (Helianthus tuberosus) widely cultivated and often occurring as an escape: also, the tuber of the plant, used as a vegetable, as a feed for livestock....

I wasn't sure what ``occurring as an escape'' meant. And they didn't seem to be widely cultivated around here. I've never seen them in supermarkets.

``Jerusalem artichokes,'' my mother used to tell me, ``sustained Europeans through their world wars. Therefore will you please hurry up and eat your Jerusalem artichokes this minute!''

When we lived near Paris in 1950, a French guest politely refused them. ``Oh, please never serve topinambours to a Frenchman! Nor panais [parsnips] or navets [turnips]. Under the occupation, all we ate were those roots.''

Still, my mother fed us Jerusalem artichokes. Raw in salad or boiled in broth and served steaming with butter, they were more delicate than turnips or parsnips, and crunchier and more interesting than potatoes.

That evening I sliced three of the artichoke roots that Charlotte and Michael brought and served them raw with vinaigrette. With the first Proustian bite, my childhood came alive with memories of winter dinners of topinambours, girasoles, or what my Russian grandmother called zemlyaniye grushi - ``earth pears.''

The other tubers I planted in my vegetable garden, itself a symbol of hope, excavated from a unplowed field by a briny cove.

``You may regret it,'' Michael warned. ``Jerusalem artichokes take over gardens.'' Nonsense, I thought, and how nice: I've always loved jungles. Besides, nothing may grow in that rocky plot.

But the tubers sprouted, and soon three lances were striking skyward, rising above the delicate lettuce, buoyant tomatoes, and squashes. The top of the stalks bore rough yellow flowers, like black-eyed Susans on stilts. Drought did not trouble them.

``Don't harvest until after frost,'' Charlotte said.

By November, the garden was brown. Only the stalks of Jerusalem artichokes withstood wind, hail, and snow. The soil beneath did not freeze. I pawed under the snow, stuck the spading fork at the base of each stalk, and brought up tubers enough to fill a pail. Here was the heart of our Christmas dinner, our New Year's feast!

I thought I had got them all, did not think the next spring to replant. In went the usual radishes, lettuce that bolted too soon, squashes that bugs ate, carrots that did not grow.

By July, eight-foot-high spears occupied half the garden. Is that what Webster's meant by ``occurring as an escape''?

Jerusalem artichokes quickly became a tradition at Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and all other winter feasts. Fortunately, everyone loved them.

Michael was right. The next summer, exponentially more showed up. The next winter we gave Jerusalem artichoke parties. Charlotte and Michael came, carefully ate everything but the Jerusalem artichokes.

Then we had to move from the cove. I looked for another house by the water, with space on shore for our roots. No place could I find available, affordable, and right.

In December, in tears, we emptied our old house, dug up the garden. All winter we too felt deep frozen. At last we found a collapsing 100-year-old farmhouse absorbed by romantic forests of underbrush, and vines, which the landlord razed, leaving a desert.

In the long-neglected house, every room had to be scraped and painted, ceilings shored up, windows repaired. As we were working, the movers arrived to drop off our hand-me-down furniture, thriftshop utensils, and the bag of roots we had no time to plant.

But pinkish strings pressed against the old plastic, tendrils naked as newborn mice were inching out of the bag.

A neighbor plowed us a plot. In the farthest trench, I planted one row of Jerusalem artichokes. Two Junes later, that end of the garden sprouted Jerusalem artichokes. By August, myriad rough yellow flowers waved overhead and there was scarcely space to walk. This winter again we will bring artichokes to our friends instead of flowers, chocolates, or books.

So let them continue to multiply like friends, and nourish ever more generations....

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