On Sunchokes

There’s something about sunchokes—they seem seasonless to me (they aren’t….they are definitely an autumn root vegetable), I think because I only first tasted one in adulthood. Food has place: place in terms of geography, and place in terms of time.

For all of us.

Ice Pops, for example, can be found in my childhood summers. Sushi and white wine can be found in the suburbs of Cincinnati in my early 20s.  But sunchokes? These wonderfully creamy, bloomy knobs belong in all kinds of places for me. Travels for work and pleasure have put me in many different chairs pulled up to many different tables in many different cities. The sunchoke is a kind of comfort food without place—it’s not my family’s cooking, or the city I grew up in, or even something attached to regular childhood vacation spots. It belongs to my life in a suitcase. If I go somewhere and I find it on a menu, in some weird way I feel like I’m ‘home.'

sunchokes

Over the years, working with end-of-life, death and dying, I’ve learned in a feel-it-in-your-bones kind of way that ‘places’ really aren’t that different. Every single city I have ever been in is full of humans, shelters, roads…..and food. Every single one! As a midwestern teenager, I thought New York City must be so incredibly foreign. A big place where everything is different. A place I must surely be vastly different from. The truth is I blend in there just like everyone else. 

‘People’ aren’t that different from each other, either. End-of-life will teach you that in a heartbeat. Perfection absolutely does not exist, and dysfunction absolutely does. I always say that if you ever need a dose of real-deal truth….go be with the dying. The truth comes out. It’s completely raw and real. Everyone’s issues bubble to the surface and as an observer, you watch a very important decision being made—to lean into the discomfort of the truth or to run from it. This is how families branch apart, or twist more tightly together.

These sunchokes, though. If you eat too many, you can get some digestive trouble. But man, are they good. And man, is it worth it. Especially roasted and salted, or whipped into an autumnal soup of some kind. 

Death and dying is often avoided. It’s not something we’re all siting around looking forward to. But, it’s seasonless. It happens in winter, spring, summer and fall. Morning, noon and night. It happens in every city (the big ones, and the small ones, too). Death and dying has place: place in terms of geography, and place in terms of time.

We experience death at different points of our lives. There are people who never lose a loved one until they are full-grown adults. But others? They might lose a parent at the age of 10, or a sibling as a teenager, or a friend in college. Death flavors our perspectives on life and the way in which it ‘happens’ to us shapes that ‘taste.’ Death is attached to place in the same way that food is. Maybe you think of being gathered at Grandma’s house after Grandpa died. Or catching a flight last minute to a certain city. Or the feel of a funeral home. Death is, in a way, a string of places mixed with certain times in our lives. Like those sunchokes are tied to my life-in-a-suitcase.

That’s why food is very much a part of death and dying, because it is a part of life and living. Food flavors life, and life (and death) flavors time. And all of it becomes memories and stories that are woven into who we become.

Sunchokes seem seasonless to me because they connect me to so many cities and places over a number of years. When I’m old and retired and I eat a sunchoke, I hope I am flooded with memories of these places I visited and this time of my life.

And I hope you are too, with whatever is a sunchoke for you. 

What's the food you connect with in this way?