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The French word topinambour--it saved French lives during WW2

Hidden in Paris Corine Gantz

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topinambour (toh-pee-nam-boor)

    : jerusalem artichoke, sun choke, helianthus tuberosus

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Pendant la guerre, manger des topinambours a permis d'éviter la famine.
During the war, eating jerusalem artichokes helped avoid famine.


A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE... by Kristin Espinasse

After what seemed like months I finally received the package of seeds I’d ordered. Ripping open the box, I reached for packets of maïs doux, épinard géant d’hiver, amaranthe rouge and ail chinois. It was strange how such a small order was delivered in such a large box--unusual for a company practicing sustainability.

Flattening the boîte for recycling, an earthy scent arose tickling my nose. Reaching into the package I pulled out a lump of dirt. More dirt followed and what looked like crottes! A thought crossed my mind: Perhaps one could go too far on this path of permaculture? Things were getting a little too natural for even my sensibilities!

I grabbed the receipt, my eyes traveling down the list to a vaguely familiar word: topinambour. Must have ordered them during my latest seed shopping spree… Why? Like a patient waking from a retail therapy coma, I had no answers—only a bizarre purchase to account for.

I took out a few more tubers, examining them. No two were alike. And which way was up? Which end was the root end for planting?

      The forest for the trees--or the tubers from the tiles...

With soiled hands, I pounded the keyboard for information. In addition to crotte-like tubers, an internet search brought up pages and pages of bright yellow sunflowers. The tournesols were only too familiar. I’d seen them in cozy French gardens and even in charming municipal displays. How I’d yearned for them, trying in vain to locate the exact flowers in seed catalogues.  

But what were they doing here, in a search for ugly tubers or topinambours?

Slowly connecting the dots, I realized I’d accidentally happened upon them—right in my mailbox--after ordering a légume ancien--forgotten vegetables our ancestors once grew!  Next came the quest to know everything possible about this absolutely charming vegetable, the Jerusalem artichoke (a.k.a. “The sunchoke” “the Pear of the Earth” and, my favorite, “The Truffle of Canada”).


Not only were the "sunroot" flowers beautiful to look at, they were, according to the internet, a cinch to grow in almost any soil (even in sand!) and they came with a host of benefits: they can be eaten raw or cooked, diabetics favor them for the inulin, which helps diminish or eliminate the need for insulin, neighbors plant them as “privacy shields” (the plants shoot up quickly, as high as 10-12 feet), animals love them (good for chickens!) and survivalists plant them in their yards. “When the supermarket shelves are empty,” one gardener said, “I’ll have 3 years worth of food!”

Sunroot flowers
Photographed by Paul Fenwick, 19th March 2005

Bon, one could get tired of even “truffles”… still with their golden blossoms and nutty-tasting tubers, what wasn’t there to love about these so-called Pears of the Earth? An internet forum revealed the downside: 1) intestinal response (gas) and 2) the tubers have an invasive characteristic. As little as a portion of one tuber could yield dozens and dozens and dozens more. Practically impossible to harvest every single one, the plant lives on to infinity and beyond—sometimes invading neighbor’s gardens!

After reading all the horror stories, including the tuber’s attractiveness to pigs—of which we have many (a serious sanglier problem), I went to sleep and had nightmares—so worried was I about the one or two Jerusalem artichokes I’d already planted, a vision of endless sunflowers having goaded me on and on. But where had I planted them? I could not exactly remember. Tossing and turning all night long, drenched in sweat, I tugged at the sunchokes in vain. No matter how deep I dug, in my dreams, more came up—totally invading my garden as they marched their gnarled “feet”, toward my neighbor’s yard! I woke several times in the night, drenched, only to fall back asleep to the same tuber war! Reaching, grasping, yanking, I could not oust the invader!

The next day, while serving coffee to our especially animated guest (a specialist on planting grapevines), I talked about the Jerusalem artichokes I’d ordered.

“An excellent and advantageous food!” he chirped, only to grow uncharacteristically quiet. A peaceful look transformed his face and when next the farmer looked up he said:

“Thanks in part to your country and to the topinambour, France was saved during the war… from invasion and famine.

It was yet another coincidence, to be holding this homely tuber on such a memorable day: Armistice, or Veterans Day. 

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French Vocabulary
la crotte = dog doo
le maïs doux = sweet corn
l'épinard géant d’hiver = giant winter spinach
amaranthe rouge = red amaranthus
ail (m) chinois = Chinese garlic
la boîte = box
le tournesol = sunflower 
bon = well (after all)
le sanglier = wild boar


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Hidden in Paris Corine Gantz

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