the lesson of the beet
"The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious."
A friend of mine once lent me a copy of Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume. I only made it through the first fifty pages. I wasn’t a fan of Robbins’ portrayal of the female, but was very much a fan of his portrayal of the beet: a bulb I find as curious as I do humble. It was on loan following a larger conversation around scent, memory, and our spirit vegetables. Mine would have been the leek: a stubborn root for sure; chameleonic like all alliums, but (slightly) more sophisticated than an onion. Nowadays I’d be apt to say fennel (though I don’t think I’m fit to wear a crown), but his was the beet.
Beets ask a lot of you during a season that’s too hot for more than stovetop cooking. Hard and unyielding raw, they are usually better off roasted. Their leaves however, are billowy and tender, turning the water they're blanched in a pleasing shade of magenta. Once their texture has been addressed, it’s their skin that asks you to respond: sometimes thick and stubborn, too tough to be palatable, but other times thin and undetectable, barely worth removing without losing flesh. Then there is the juice to test your patience: an ink really, vermilion in color, impishly staining hands, dish rags, and countertops. Beets do not give in easily, but instead fight before their death, bleeding purple and proud, forcing you to choose which cutting board you’ll sacrifice in their offering. Two bunches sat steadfast in my fridge, enduring a full three weeks of neglect before they would reward me with perplexing, earthy sweetness I’ve once heard described as “dirt candy.”
Like all vegetables, they’re not singular in indentity. There is bulls blood, the deep, dark purple flesh I'm thinking of above. Early wonder are purple and striated, while golden beets deviate completely in color, but not flavor. There is even something called the Mammoth Red Mangel, which can grow up to 40 lbs. Not your typical garden variety. And then there is the Italian heirloom Chioggia or “Bassano” beet, my favorite, with alternating concentric circles of red and white that make me wonder if these mark its age like they do a tree's trunk.
Perhaps the most perplexing of all, historically, is the sugar beet. I first encountered the knotty, bulbous roots when I was at a cookery school in Ireland. I’d notice them littering the sides of the road during my nightly hikes; a backdrop of hilly road and endless pasture that begged to be walked. I would make it a goal not to rely on a map, just a few street signs written in Gaelic and these sugar beets as my trail markers. This was wildly ineffective, and I would end up lost most of the time. But those Irish grazing cows must have demanded dinner of this particular variety, known as the fodder crop beet. They are the ogres of their cultivar. Kept in the ground a bit too long, they hardly resembled a beet at all: just a harried, brown tuber bashed and bruised from rolling off the sides of a tractor.
The sugar beet is the sweet king of the root vegetables – roughly 6% sugar by weight in older varieties and up to 20% in modern cultivars – but it’s history is a bitter one, characterized by tension between itself and sugarcane to control the market for sweetness. In the mid nineteenth century, “The Beet Sugar Society,” a group of American abolitionists, promoted making beet sugar at home “as easily as bread, pies, or cakes, can be made and baked” as an alternative to slave-produced cane sugar from the West Indies, and the “free sugar” produced without slavery, but still exported, from Asia. True of capitalism, it wasn’t until an economic, not just a moral, argument was made for beet sugar that it gained momentum in the United States beyond a cottage industry decades later.*
Young summer beets are a less storied variety, comparatively. They are sweet enough, smaller than golf balls, tender and easy to work with, and grown locally on my side of the world. They can be tasty when eaten raw, if shaved thinly and tempered with acid and salt (and a bit of sugar) for a pickle that buys you time to think about how’ll you’ll use them next: a punchy pop of tartness on a simple green salad, a bit of additional tang in a bowl of yogurt, or, below, as bruschetta: earthy slices of sweetness on thick pieces of garlic-rubbed grilled bread ("fettunta" as Italians call it).
I have chef friends now with whom to share in this lore. This is a real boon, even if you pretend to be one yourself. Chef friends are like normal friends, but with a more sophisticated understanding of the rhythms of a small gathering. If they are hosting, there is always something to nibble on before the meal, something inconsequential, but still calculated enough not to spoil your appetite or their efforts. Chef friends usually prep in advance, but reserve one task for each guest to feel involved. If they are guests themselves, they know both the extent to and the limits of which they can contribute without becoming overbearing. Surprisingly, they don’t ask what you’re making: they are not self-conscious about clashing dishes, but are instead confident that the outcome will be delicious.
My chef friends would be less-inclined to answer to this title. They are an unusual breed of food dilettantes who understand that a meal is more than the sum of its ingredients. This, among other reasons, is why I love them. Their journeys cooking professionally have been long and winding, some jogging as far as across the Atlantic and beyond the abysmal sea of the industry. These women are proof that a place exists for food professionals beyond the restaurant kitchen.
We are working towards planning a dinner series together (“series” sounds ambitiously recurrent, but our hope is just that). This, along with writing blogs, building homesteads, and organizing our pantries are clichéd aspirations we’ve tried to avoid, but have instead settled into comfortably. We gathered at my place to hash-out logistics.
Maddie, a former baker, brought a summer fruit galette for dessert that has become her signature. I believe “I love what you do with rhubarb” was uttered by me either between or amongst mouthfuls of pie, the last few bites of crust so good, they were torn off and dunked in crème fraîche by hand instead of enjoyed in a more civilized fashion.
There were vegetables too, of course; lots of them: raw young summer zucchini and radish for dunking in swiss chard hummus, velvety and swooped with a spoon so that sesame oil could pool in its wake. Sweet pea gazpacho, which was the answer to the question of what to do with the leftover pea pods (blend them to extract their juice?) and an herby green dressing so good I wanted to drink it. Thank you, Brianna, for not needing my invitation to forgo your spoon and sip it like a shooter. She brought wine and her CSA box, which led to a collective effort of fava bean shucking on my countertop. And then there were the beets I had pickled earlier, sitting inertly on top of a garlicky smear of feta and grilled sourdough, bejeweled with mint and black currants, to awaken the senses.
Themes and menus were eventually discussed, albeit briefly, while digressing into conversation about retaining integrity of our food when cooking for those who demand the opposite. Also, the gig economy, our nomadic tendencies, and the hurdles of our gender in this industry. After dinner that evening, I took moment between bites to reflect on how perfectly in alignment I felt to be with these women, and I remembered Robbins' beet.
"At birth we are red-faced, round, intense, pure. The crimson fire of universal consciousness burns in us. Gradually, however, we are devoured by parents, gulped by schools, chewed up by peers, swallowed by social institutions, wolfed by bad habits, and DNA…wed by age; and by the time we have been digested, cow style, in those six stomachs, we emerge a single disgusting shade of brown.
The lesson of the beet, then, is this: Hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown."
It was just dinner, but the crimson fire of our little collective was starting to flicker. We were three summer beets, red-faced from too much wine, round with pie, and intense in our desire to cook beyond the confines of those six stomachs – and the three of our own.