I had to go to the gum doctor again today for another check-up, and on the way back I stopped at Verrill Farm, the farmstand Carol and I used to shop at when we lived down the street from it. They still have lots of fresh local fruits and vegetables: butternut squash, Hubbard squash (big and blue and warty), acorn squash; bags of curly spinach, and bunches of lacinto kale and curly-leaf kale; a few last tomatoes; parsnips (creamy white gnarled roots tied in neat bunches with the greens still attached), carrots (long gloriously orange blunt-tipped ones, and crookedy pointed yellow ones); Jerusalem artichokes; Brussels sprouts; bright bunches of red radishes and red-and-white radishes with rounded green leaves; Yukon gold potatoes, little wooden boxes of expensive German fingerling potatoes, Green Mountain potatoes (oddly-shaped with deep eyes), red potatoes, big long Russet potatoes; big yellow rutabagas, and this year they’re growing the white Macomber turnips that originated down here in Westport; and of course there are the native apples: McIntoshes, Spencers, Empires, Macouns, and Cortlands (although they had none of the older varieties that keep better and cook better).
As I picked up a box of Jerusalem artichokes, a woman asked me if you had to peel them before she cooked them, adding, “They look like they would be difficult to peel, they’re so small.” I said that I peeled them and ate them raw, but I knew some people ate them with the skins on. “What do they taste like?” I said they tasted nutty and, well, good. She was about to ask me something else when one of the cashiers who has worked there for years overheard our conversation, ignored me, bustled up to her and said, “You’ll love them, one of my customers doesn’t peel them, she just gently scrubs them and cooks them.” “Gently scrubs — you mean like mushrooms?” “Yes, just like that,” said the officious cashier, who obviously knew nothing about Jerusalem artichokes. Jerusalem artichokes are nothing at all like mushrooms: you do not wash them like mushrooms, you do not prepare them like mushrooms, and they do not taste like mushrooms. Under the cashier’s onslaught, the other woman put the box of Jerusalem artichokes in her shopping basket, and slunk away.
That officious cashier made the sale, but I wonder how happy that woman will be with her purchase. Scrub them gently? If she doesn’t want to peel them, she’d be better off scrubbing the hell out of them, then trimming off the unappetizing bits. Mostly, we North Americans eat a very limited number of foodstuffs these days, and most of the food we eat comes out of plastic containers or cardboard boxes. It’s hard to change the habits embedded in us by all that prepared food. You can’t change those habits by telling someone Jerusalem artichokes are “like mushrooms.” Tell them that Jerusalem artichokes are a gustatory adventure, like nothing they’ve ever tried before: nutty, sweet, with a lovely crunchy texture when you eat them raw. Tell them the truth about the food they’ve never eaten, and maybe they’ll be too intimidated to buy it this time, but you will have planted a seed in their imaginations, and they will realize that there’s a whole world of food out there that they haven’t tried — a whole world of local food that they have been shut out of because, for all the immense floor space, supermarkets actually have very little variety.
As for me, I bought a big bag of Cortland apples, ten pounds of orange carrots (which taste nothing like the California carrots you get in the supermarket), Brussels sprouts, ten pounds of Green Mountain potatoes (which are firmer, whiter, and taste different than the limp potatoes you get in the supermarket), lacinto kale, and some of that late-fall spinach (which tastes different from the plastic-wrapped spinach you get in the supermarket because of the soil and the weather, and because it’s much fresher). I also got some Jerusalem artichokes. I think I’ll go eat one right now: peel it, and bite into it raw.