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France Is Slowly Bringing Back Its ‘Forgotten Vegetables’

Root vegetables like rutabagas and Jerusalem artichokes were ration staples during the Nazi occupation of Paris

Rutabagas are a cross between turnips and cabbages first described in 1620 (Photo by pin add via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0)
smithsonianmag.com

Ten ounces of bread per day, one egg per week and three ounces of butter per month. In 1944, after Paris was liberated from four years of Nazi occupation, food rationing remained severe, and didn’t entirely lift until 1949. A family was given three ounces of meat per person, but it was weighed with the bone still inside, so the actual portion of meat was even less.

Each weekend, Parisians would bike to the countryside in search of whatever vegetables their friends could spare. And what they found were not well-known staples, but leftovers usually grown for livestock. As Emily Monaco writes for Atlas Obscura, Nazi troops had taken over the majority of French food production. They redirected prime staples like potatoes and half of the country’s meat production.

The French, instead, worked with what was left: hardy root vegetables like rutabagas and Jerusalem artichokes. But after relying on them for nearly a decade, many of those who lived through rationing elected never to eat them again, earning the root veggies the name “forgotten vegetables.”

Lasting, negative associations with particular foods isn’t uncommon—memories involving food are often some of the strongest, Vassar College psychologist Hadley Bergstrom told Julie Thomson at the Huffington Post in 2017.

Owner of the Parisian culinary school Le Foodist Fred Pouillot grew up in central France, and tells Atlas Obscura that even today, his 86-year-old mother “despises rutabagas.” He adds, “She said that topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes) were the only thing she remembers eating during the war that was good. But she has never cooked them again.”

A Jerusalem artichoke is a tuber, like a potato. It comes from a plant with a bright yellow blossom, so its name in Italian is girasole, the word for sunflower. When the vegetable was picked up by English speakers, the Italian name morphed into “Jerusalem,” and “artichoke” was added to describe tuber’s flavor, Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton reported in 2013.

In the last decade, chefs have been reviving interest in Jerusalem artichokes. Peeled, boiled and pureed, sliced and fried, or roasted whole, the vegetables have been rebounding as interest grows in locally grown produce. But chef and restaurant owner Rene Redzepi warned Bon Appetit against serving them raw. Unlike potatoes, that are rich in starch, Jerusalem artichokes are full of another carbohydrate called inulin. Our bodies are less equipped to break down inulin, so eating raw Jerusalem artichokes, or eating too many of them, can cause gastrointestinal distress.

Before the occupation, Jerusalem artichokes were mostly grown in France to feed livestock. Decades later, the vegetables are still associated with the hardship of the 1940s for those who lived through it. The same is true for rutabagas.

“There’s no French person who doesn’t have the memory of Grandma or Grandpa talking about how we had nothing to eat except horrible rutabagas in 1943,” Cornell University historian Steven Kaplan tells the Washington Post.

Rutabagas are like a cross between a turnip and a cabbage that came about hundreds of years ago. 17th-century Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin first described the odd vegetable in his 1620 book “Prologue to the Exposition of Plants,” according to the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner. Rutabaga leaves can be cooked like mustard greens, and their large, hairy roots can grow as big as a human head, which makes them perfect for turning into vegetable noodles, Rosner writes.

For families that experienced rationing, rutabagas and Jerusalem artichokes “just contributed to the idea of everything that was so horrible about the Occupation.” Université Paris Diderot culinary historian Patrick Rambourg tells Atlas Obscura. But as the veggies gain traction again, he says, “maybe we needed to wait for the second or third generation. We’re moving away from this history and this painful past of the Occupation. In time, you know. Not in our memories.”

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