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The Sunchoke: A Reckoning

By Lola Dalrymple

Well the time has come, folks: it’s the last week of Phase I for the esteemed 2019 cohort. We thought it only right to ring out the season on a festive note, so we deemed our last full week as the Allegheny Mountain Institute’s Inaugural Sunchoke Week. We, the nine brave individuals that we are, pledged to include sunchokes in at least one meal a day.

For those readers unaware of the many facets of the mighty sunchoke, allow me to enlighten you. But first, I must praise your innocence and advise you to hold on to it for as long as possible (the reasons why will soon unfold). Sunchokes, otherwise known as Jerusalem artichokes, are a root vegetable found on the rhizomes of a type of sunflower. They are extremely nutritious- high in iron, fiber, antioxidants, and perhaps most notably inulin: a carbohydrate that helps to regulate blood sugar. Dylan, our farm manager, waxed poetic about the virtues of sunchokes as a food source not only for humans, but also in the pasture for grazing animals. They are high in protein, akin to, in Dylan’s words, a “boutique alfalfa grass,” which sensing from his enthusiasm was something we were desperately after.

A formidable sunchoke harvest to consume over the course of a week.

But sunchokes have a dark side. There’s no point in beating around the bush any longer, dear reader: sunchokes cause inordinate flatulence. Could their virtues outweigh their perils? We set out to fully investigate this provocative prompt.

I felt our week of sunchokes to be a true testament to how close we have grown over our time together, to how comfortable we now are with one another. If we could make it through this, the world was our to conquer!

Monday was Day One. Matt, ever the thoughtful cook, had read that boiling sunchokes in lemon juice might soften their blow, so he and his co-chef Georgia took this prophylactic step before featuring the week’s star veggie in our dinner of grain bowls. The reviews came in fast: this meal garnered unanimous raves. The sunchokes shone especially bright. They were sweet and nutty and earthy, tender yet crisp.

Julia and Georgia locking arms in solidarity, on the brink of taking a bite of sunchoke.

An hour went by; we enjoyed each other’s company, we laughed, we talked shop at the table. We left the lodge shrugging, our stomachs all feeling fine. We were innocent then. Some might even say we were smug.

The sunchokes did not take effect until that night. Those in my cabin were thankful that our heat is not provided by a woodstove, as one light of a match could have taken out the whole mountaintop. The atmosphere was truly combustible.

But, march on, we did.

Kaila and Naomi were our fearless captains on Day Two of this campaign. They served up a medley of sunchokes and potatoes. We were again awestruck by the multitudinous flavor of this tuber. We were again awestruck by the gastrointestinal distress that they could cause.

By day three, some in the group grew worried. Could this madness continue? There was some concern that our experiment could have real-world ramifications. You see, AMI is located a short drive from the Greenbank Observatory, which houses the world’s largest radio telescope. As such, the region is part of a radio quiet zone, as certain transmissions could interfere with the telescope’s ability to detect faint frequencies. Surely the rumbles coming from Bear Mountain were causing blips on Greenbank’s radar.

However, at this point, we were hooked on the ‘choke, and there was no stopping us. Day Three brought sunchoke gnocchi, Day Four gifted us with a sweet potato sunchoke casserole, and Day Five, the pièce de résistance: a sunchoke pizza. We made it out alive, stronger than ever. Was the experiment worth it? Oh, absolutely! Like many challenges we’ve been presented with on the mountain, we were dared to try new things, to expand our palates, to create no food waste, and we were motivated to persevere in the face of adversity.

As our final week comes to a close, I’ve been humbled by this plant: by the soil that housed it and nourished it, by the 18 hands that dug up its roots. The plant began its 2019 season much like we did: green and just barely over-wintered. As Phase I went on, each shoot grew tall and blossomed into a magnificent and confident flower. So too, did each of us. The sunchokes’ real bounty proved to be below the surface: a treasure trove of heterogeneous bulbs. Our group also revealed a splendor of diverse talents and qualities that took some digging to unearth. And finally, as we learned all too well, the sunchoke does not go out with a whimper, but with a colossal, reverberating bang. As does this cohort’s magical time atop Bear Mountain.

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