What is a Jerusalem artichoke?

A Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke, and it doesn’t come from Jerusalem.

It’s unclear how the herbaceous perennial plant, kin to the sunflower, acquired its misleading name. The explanation most suited to this season centers on the Pilgrims, who supposedly named the plant, which was long cultivated by American Indians, in reference to the New Jerusalem they planned to create on American soil. Another unproven theory posits “Jerusalem” is a corruption of the Italian word for sunflower, and that the tubers taste something like artichokes.

A farmer in the 1960s rechristened the plant a sunchoke, and it’s also sometimes labeled as a sunroot or earth apple. But the plant has lately acquired another less savory name from chefs who’ve noted what happens when their customers consume too much of the inulin-rich plant.

Inulin (not to be confused with insulin) “has an Ex-Lax-like effect on the human digestive system,” according to a recent Bon Appetit story. Culinary hero Rene Redzepi of Denmark’s Noma told the magazine he’d never serve a raw sunchoke.

But cooked sunchokes are all over trendy menus these days, and Germany continues to produce Jerusalem artichoke brandy: It’s used to treat stomachaches.

Hanna Raskin

Food processers have simplified the traditional coastal chore of making Jerusalem artichoke pickles, but Emily Grimball says there still isn’t any quick way to get the sunchokes clean.

Tommy Thornhill’s Jerusalem Artichoke Pickles

Makes 12 pints

Ingredients

For the brine

1 gallon water

3-4 pounds cut artichoke

2 cups salt

8-10 onions, quartered and sliced thin

For the sauce

1 cup flour

3 tablespoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon allspice

1 tablespoon tumeric

3 pounds sugar

1 tablespoon pepper

2 tablespoon celery seed

1 teaspoon cloves (ground)

2 quarts white vinegar

Directions

For brine: Add artichokes, salt and onions to water. Soak at least four hours; “Overnight is desirable,” Thornhill says.

For sauce: Mix dry ingredients until smooth. Add to white vinegar in large stockpot. Bring to rolling boil. Add artichokes and onions to pot, return to rolling boil. Wash jars and lids; place in boiling water. Remove six jars from water. Using ladle and large-mouth funnel, fill jars to 1/8-inch from top. Remove lids from boiling water. Place on jars and screw tight to seal. Repeat as necessary. Set jars aside to cool. “After an hour or more, push on each lid to be sure seal is good,” Thornhill advises.

“I’m standing here washing the little devils, and it’s a job,” Grimball said when reached at her West Ashley home last week. “I’m scrubbing these dabgum things with a fingernail brush; there’s all that nice Johns Island mud in there.”

Grimball is one of a number of relish and pickle makers who every fall buy knobby Jerusalem artichokes from Sidi Limehouse to put up for the holidays. Grimball’s been making her sliced chokes for 50 years: Her friends won’t let her stop.

“They say, ‘You’re giving me my pickles this year, aren’t you?’ ” says Grimball, whose children are equally fond of the late-autumn treat.

The once-common practice of making Jerusalem artichoke pickles has dwindled as the plant has disappeared from the Lowcountry landscape and elsewhere.

Bill Smith, chef of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, N.C., says Jerusalem artichokes were easy to find when he was a boy in eastern North Carolina, but farmers have since curtailed the invasive tuber.

“When I was growing up it was always brought to the table as part of a relish tray,” recalls Smith, who last week made “a ton” of Jerusalem artichoke relish according to his father’s recipe. “He was somewhat famous for it. He gave it as holiday gifts every year.”

At Crook’s Corner, Smith serves the relish with steaks and hamburgers, although he also recommends pairing it with thick bean soups.

“Remarkably, people often say that Jerusalem artichokes taste like dirt, in the way beets sometime do, I guess,” Smith says.

Tommy Thornhill of James Island, who’s known Grimball for 70 years, but never tasted her pickles, likes to serve his pickles at Thanksgiving.

“It’s an old-time recipe from my grandmother,” he says.

Although Grimball has developed her own recipe, her starting point was a recipe in “Charleston Receipts,” which included directions for four different artichoke pickles.

The recipes represent the range of pickles, which can be whole, chopped or ground into relish.

The other major point of artichoke pickle contention is whether any other vegetables should be added to the jar.

Thornhill and Grimball don’t fuss with cauliflower and bell peppers, although Thornhill uses onions in his mix.

“There are so many different recipes out here,” Grimball sighs.

Grimball and Thornhill each make two or three dozen pints; Grimball this year began with 12 pounds of Jerusalem artichokes, fresh from the field.

“A lot of people don’t know about it,” Thornhill says. “People get it confused with the artichoke you use for salad.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.