RICHMOND, Va. - Chester Walters held a small knobby Jerusalem artichoke in his outstretched hand and remarked that some people eat the tubers just like apples — raw and unpeeled.
Then he paused, clearly waiting for those in attendance to accept his sample and take a bite. And sooner rather than later, because Chester had Jerusalem artichoke soup ready on the stove, fresh rolls baking in the oven and time wasted with apprehensive guests meant cold soup and burned bread.
If you’re not familiar, Jerusalem artichokes are neither products of the Middle East nor are they kin to the very recognizable globe artichokes. Jerusalem artichokes are the roots of a particular sunflower, and are often referred to as sunchokes or sunroots and other science-y names that refer to their species. They look like ginger root, but they have a mild flavor and crisp texture similar to a water chestnut or a radish when sliced and eaten raw.
With a thin, edible skin like a potato, they’re high in potassium and iron, contain zero cholesterol and are offered as an alternative to potatoes for those with diabetes because they contain little starch and are a low glycemic index food. They’re also an excellent source of fiber — perhaps too much for some, earning them a rather unflattering nickname over the years. (More on that later.)
But for Chester and his wife of 70 years, Betty Walters, Jerusalem artichokes are a regular part of their diet, most often cooked until soft with other vegetables and puréed into a simple but hearty soup that needs only basic ingredients and a little time.
Which is OK, because at 93 years old, Chester doesn’t move quickly, except to point out that fact. Don’t ask him where the Jerusalem artichoke got its name, because he has “no earthly idea.” He’s content to sit in a plastic lawn chair in the garden on his seven-acre property, just beyond the Ashland town limits, and let family and friends dig up the artichokes. In season, if they survive hungry critters, the flowers grow upwards of 10 to 12 feet, he said. Harvest time is now, late in the year, and he’s been known to deliver them to Cross Brothers Grocery in Ashland for those who wish to purchase them.
But chances are, if you stop by the Walters home — for any reason — you’ll get your fill of artichokes, either cooked in some way or dirty and raw and fresh from the garden. And if you don’t, just say the word — you’ll be handed gardening gloves and a shovel and set loose in the backyard to dig up your own hidden treasures.
The origins of the Jerusalem artichoke may rest in its Italian name, girasole articiocco. Jerusalem may be a rough (and corrupted) interpretation of girasole, which refers to turning toward the sun, or a sunflower. They may have been referred to as an artichoke because of the similar flavors between the two foods.
And there’s a dark side, too. Jerusalem artichokes contain inulin, a type of fiber that isn’t broken down by the human digestive system. Rather, it’s attacked by bacteria once it gets into the colon, leading some to experience varying levels of gas.
For that, Jerusalem artichokes have been given an unfortunate moniker: fartichokes.
No matter their origins — or their effects — the root vegetable, particularly when prepared simply with olive oil and herbs, draws praise from chefs around Richmond.
When asked about them, chef Mike Ledesma of Kabana Rooftop, who refers to them as sunchokes, said simply, “Love them.”
“I use them roasted and puréed,” he said, adding that after they’re peeled, he keeps them in acidulated water so they don’t turn brown. Chef Christine Wansleban of Mise en Place also said she loves them, and that “they are great roasted or sliced thin and roasted as chips.”
Chester, however, isn’t worried about fancy presentation. Betty said they sometimes mix the cooked artichokes into mashed potatoes and they’re great when served with dips. And soup — lots of soup.
Chester routinely makes double batches of soup to freeze, or he gives the soup to friends and strangers alike. When he has none already prepared to give out, he simply fills grocery bags with potatoes, onions, chicken broth and the artichokes — most of the contents of his soup — along with the recipe, and sends folks on their way.
And if you don’t have a stiff vegetable brush to wash the artichokes, or a potato peeler to peel the potatoes, he’ll give you those, too.
“I always make a double batch,” Chester said about his soup. “You only clean up once.”
Father Chris Haydinger of St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Ashland, of which the Walters are members, is a recipient of Chester’s generosity, the least of which being the soup.
They were among the first people he got to know upon arriving in Ashland 13 years ago, Haydinger said of the Walters, and “they’re just delightful — they care about the right stuff.”
And yes, he quipped, “I get his soup,” referring to Chester’s recipe. Haydinger doesn’t make it on his own, but rather, “I eat what (Chester) gives me.”
Over lunch of Chester’s soup and rolls, Betty chatted easily about living in Hanover County for 40 years but that they both grew up in East Tennessee. They’ve lived around the world, including South America, as Chester’s jobs and military service moved them. As she talked, Chester sat beside her, quietly eating his soup. Occasionally, he’d interrupt his wife to ask about refilling bowls with more soup or to offer another hot roll.
Chester trained as a carrier-based fighter pilot in the Marines during the latter stages of World War II. He later served as a helicopter rescue pilot in Korea — “just like in ‘M.A.S.H.,’ ” Chester pointed out, referring to the television series that ran during the 1970s and ’80s and depicted the lives of the staff at a mobile Army hospital in Korea during the war.
But he doesn’t elaborate much on wartime and the little he does share quickly establishes that despite his reference to the popular TV show, his experiences in Korea were not “just like ‘M.A.S.H.’ “ For example, he flew only at night, he said, never after 4 or 5 a.m. That’s when the fighting occurred and, therefore, that’s when the wounded needed help.
And it’s Betty who shared that her husband earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, a military honor for heroism or extraordinary achievement in aerial combat.
But as they move toward their 71st wedding anniversary in January, their lives now involve a growing extended family of four sons, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. It’s the younger generations who take care of digging for artichokes.
Joe Walters is one of Betty and Chester’s sons, and he said during his visits, lunch is usually guaranteed, but there are strings attached, he said jokingly, such as heading to the backyard to grab artichokes from the ground.
As prolific growers, “it’s almost impossible to get every single tuber,” Joe Walters said about the artichokes, which is actually beneficial because whatever isn’t harvested turns into next year’s crop. With “halfway decent soil,” plus water and sunlight, he added, “you almost can’t make it stop growing.”
And he’s happy to get his hands dirty, because it means another meal, another conversation, another doggie bag heading home with either the raw artichokes or a batch of his father’s soup.
“We’re blessed to have them around,” he said.