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The Sunflower & Sunchoke
An early crop of the Woodlands, predating the coming of corn and beans, is the sunflower. Also part of the Eastern Agricultural Complex, sunflowers were first domesticated in eastern-central North America, in good company with gourds/early squash, goosefoot/lambsquarters, marsh elder/ sumpweed and others. And like gourds/squash, sunflowers were domesticated in Mexico too as likely a separate event (not connected, though it has been theorized that cultivated sunflowers were introduced to Mexico byway of Eastern North America, but others have refuted that - the reader should keep in mind that many types of sunflowers are native from North to Central America). Between 4 and 5,000 years ago, Native Peoples began cultivating the flower for its oily seeds – such resulting in the domesticated sunflowers producing larger seeds. The seeds were likely ground up into meal which made for wonderfully textured flour – good for both the making of dense cakes and warm porridges or “samps,” well before cornmeal was utilized in the East. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) prized the seeds for their oil, extracting the oil with heat and using it to cook with and flavor foods.
Another flower to make an impact among Eastern Peoples was the Jerusalem artichoke - neither from Jerusalem nor an artichoke (European terminology gone awry). In recent history a better term has come to rename the “Jerusalem artichoke” – the “sunchoke.” Indeed the sunchoke is from the sunflower family, a plant that grows wild originally in the central region of North America, whose growing range spread both east and west due to human use.
Some believe the plant was fully cultivated while others retain the plant was only spread by wild harvest/use and minimal encouragement (travel and/or trade that helped its dispersal could fit into either theories). It is likely, particularly before corn is fully adopted, that early farmers did cultivate the root as it offered a bulky, fresh food that could be harvested even after the first frost. However its popularity after the coming of corn is questionable in many areas of the Eastern Woodlands. Part of the problem lies in 1. Native reliance on the root, or lack there of… It seems to be minimally important as a food source post-historically. Some ethnographical data even shows separate communities of the same Nation having a different level of reliance, however this can be caused by so many factors. Reliance on sunchokes, like any other wild or domesticated plant, can change due to place, time, and other cultural factors… It doesn’t mean the tuber was never as important in the past or within certain spaces. And 2. Sunchokes were (and are) very capable plants, spreading quickly in agreeable soil. This means other than being introduced (purposely or accidently) to a human-cleared field full of lowland forest soil, there wasn’t really more to do after that. Sunchokes are aggressive - you almost can’t stop them from growing and rapidly spreading in rich soil and overtaking your corn... A far cry from the practice of cultivation, where crops had to be sown or laboriously encouraged every spring season and carefully tended to (weeded and protected), at least through mid-summer. Harvesting sunchokes simultaneously fed the People and restricted the plant from overtaking the fields - it could be a crop at best, and a weed at worse. All these factors, from cultural foodways to the biology of the plant, makes it hard to pinpoint whether sunchokes were in fact a wild/lightly encouraged food plant or a cultivated crop. Most likely, at the time of first European contacts, they were cultivated by some communities and encouraged by others, which fits all that has been revealed by Native traditions, historical accounts, and ethnographic recordings.
Sunchokes were often enjoyed raw… an early 20th c. Ojibwe term for sunchoke - “a’skibwan” - was reported as meaning “raw thing” (extra bit: current language via the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary... “ashki-” – “raw” and “aawan” – “it is a certain thing”). It appears that most did enjoy the plant not only as a raw treat but as a seasonal food. Sunchokes don’t appear to be a plant greatly fussed over in Eastern Native cuisine (as in prepped for storage, though they can be sliced and dried).
The flavor, according to some historical European tastes, had been equated to artichokes (though I personally believe raw sunchokes tastes more like water chestnuts). Though enjoyed while raw and crunchy, it could also be baked or boiled and consumed in a softer state, like other tubers.
The sunchoke was introduced to Europe almost immediately after first contacts in Eastern Woodlands, and from there it spread in both European and colonial American cuisine. However as the popularity of the potato spread throughout North America and Europe, the use of sunchokes declined (though it was never lost, particularly in some areas of Europe).
Sunchokes have made a culinary comeback in North America, both for its taste and for its nutritional value. High potassium, iron, possible prebiotics, and unlike other staple root foods (like potatoes) high in starch, sunchokes are instead rich in a carbohydrate called inulin (not to be confused with insulin). Inulin cannot be digested well by humans which can be a plus for dieting, but it can also result in digestive upset, and for that reason many can’t eat sunchokes in a large serving as they would potatoes. But in conservative amounts, it is quite the tasty tuber.
To cite this article:
Diemer-Eaton, Jessica. (2019). Some Flowers! The Sunflower & Sunchoke. Retrieved from http://www.woodlandindianedu.com/sunchoke.html
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