Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sunflowers, Illuminated

Everything is Illuminated, sourced

By now, via screen or page, it seems everyone has taken in the vast, almost magical fields of sunflowers in Jonathon Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. Love or loathe Everything is Illuminated (not to cop out but I find myself squarely on the middle ground, except where Eugene Lutz is concerned.), it set an imagination of the Ukrainian countryside as a sunny, golden sea. 

I must admit, there is something sort of dreamy or wistful about sunflowers, their vibrant yellow color, the way they are said to lift their heavy heads together, following the sun across the sky. (This tracking of the sun is called heliotropism but there appears to be lack of consensus as to whether sunflowers are true heliotrophs or maybe only in early life stages. As a child of the American Midwest, I swear that I have witnessed this. Any sunflower scientists out there that can clarify?) 

From train window, central Ukraine, photo courtesy of pickle pal Linda Knudsen McAusland
In the genus Helianthus (sound familiar?) with sunchokes, sunflowers originate in the Americas but were brought to Europe by those intrepid Spaniards in the 16th Century.  According to Cullinaria, edited by Marion Trutter (2006), sunflowers came to the Dnieper Valley with Peter the Great, after a trip to Western Europe in the mid 1500s. Peter, who was something of a sunflower aficionado, was fond of their bright colors but they soon emerged as an important food source. 

Sunflowers, соняшник in Ukrainian, are grown for seeds, which are pressed for oil or cracked and roasted as a food stuff for people and animals, particularly poultry. Referencing my trusty Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (Rodale, 1971), I learned that sunflowers are highly nutritious, very rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin and are an important source of linoleic acid (good for hair and skin, by the way). Sunflower oil is generally cold pressed, which helps to retain the oils nutrients and vitamins.  In my experience, sunflower oil is the oil of choice among Ukrainian cooks. It complements fresh veggies, as well as meats. 

From train window, central Ukraine, photo courtesy of pickle pal Linda Knudsen McAusland
Oil production began in Ukraine around 1835 and that the Kherson and Zaporhiza regions were critical to fat supplies during the Second World War and in the Soviet Area. Overtime, sunflower oil production has remained an important economic resource in Ukraine, though the industry has struggled to keep pace with crop resistance and industry standards. All that said, according to this recent post from PR Newswire, Ukraine now produces a quarter of world’s sunflower oil, comprising 51% of the global export market for the commodity. Interestingly, India is the top consumer of Ukraine’s sunflower oil. A 15% decline in production is anticipated for Ukraine’s sunflower oil production over the next year, based on adverse weather projections.

Sunflower seeds at Odessa's Central Market, photo by Linda

Whole sunflower seeds are a very popular Ukrainian snack and are found studding breads and sweets. Markets stalls feature a dizzying array of varieties and preparations. On street corners, kerchiefed grannies sell sunflower seeds for birds.

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