When you pick beets from their row in the garden, grab the ruby-veined green leaves and ribbed deep red stems, give a tug, and then pull. You don’t need to be a strongman, but the maneuver does require a persuasive yank. For three to four months the beet’s hair roots have drilled further and further through soil both down and outward, grubbing for water and for the potassium, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorous that help make the beet root and beet leaves good for us. So that as you wrest the round beet from what has been its underground home, you can hear tiny hair roots break; a heart-rending rip, a sound not unlike that of tearing an adhesive bandage off skin.
Beet “bottoms” are homely looking and, right out of the garden, dirty. Although classified as a root vegetable, the beet is actually a mix of stem and root tissue whose main components are starch and sugar. The beet’s sweet earthy flavor marries brilliantly with “sours” — vinegar, citrus, sour cream.
Native to a broad swath of Eurasia that runs from Britain to India. Beta vulgaris is a group of vegetables grown primarily for edible roots and leaves. Included in Beta vulgaris population are the familiar table beet (in colors that range from white to yellow-gold to deep magenta), Swiss chard, the mangle beet, or mangel-wurzel, used for cattle feed, and the sugar beet, whose roots grow to weighs as much as 60 pounds.
Beets were cultivated in prehistoric times. In the pre-Christian years, Romans ate only the beet tops and then, early in the Christian era, for reasons lost to historical account, beet leaves and roots began to appear on Roman tables, where they were eaten with vinegar, oil, and salt as a winter salad. Pliny the Elder suggested “garlic breath could be lessened by eating a roasted beet.”
When Charlemagne, in 800 A. D., assumed rule over the Holy Roman Empire, he listed the beet as among those plants he wanted cultivated all across his domain. This earliest beet root was white. Between the 2nd and 16th centuries, a red-rooted beet developed. The first description remaining to us of a red beet was made in the mid-1500s by English naturalist John Gerard, who in his Herball referred to this beet as “the Roman beet, surnamed Sicilia.”
Across Europe, the red beet came into use as a remedy for headaches, toothaches and disorders of the blood. Beet juice was used as red dye for cloth and as colorant for cheeks and lips. On Good Friday 1690, the Duc d’Orleans sponsored a banquet made up entirely of root vegetables; the red beet was one of the meal’s high points.
When colonists sailed to America, they brought beets with them. By the 18th century, red, white and yellow beets and red-white-striped beets were being grown here and stored, over winter, in root cellars. An early American favorite was Harvard beets, in which cooked beets bobbed in a thickened sweet-and-sour sauce. With each wave of immigration from Europe to the United States, new recipes for beets arrived. Immigrants from along the North Sea added minced beet to dishes of salted herring, grated raw beet with horseradish or pickled it with onion to serve as relish. The Dutch brought their recipe for hard-boiled eggs, marinated in pickled beet juice (these pickled eggs, bobbing up and down in half–gallon jars, jars can still be found sitting on the bar in some taverns). Germans served the beet boiled, alone and with cabbage. Italians sliced beets into salad and used red beet juice to color pasta. Eastern Europeans baked beets whole and used beets to make what surely is the jewel in the beet’s culinary crown: borscht.
For Warren Gableman (prenounced “Gobble-man”), now retired from his professorship in horticulture at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, beets have been his life’s work. One recent summer afternoon when the air in Wisconsin and Southern California was equally hot and steamy, I talked by phone with Dr. Gableman. For over 40 years, he said, he had focused on beet genetics. He came to beets through corn when, as a graduate student, he worked to find a method in corn that would create pollen sterility without detasseling.
Corn genetics might seem an odd road by which to arrive at beets unless one considers that Gaberlaman’s search for a way to create pollen sterility without detasseling could be transferred to beet breeding.
The beet flower, Gabelman explained, is almost impossible to emasculate by hand (emasculation involves removal of the anthers, or male pollen-producing parts of a flower). Therefore, if one wishes fairly easily and inexpensively to hybridize beets (hybridization is the development of a new plant from two genetically unlike parents), a method has to be found to create pollen sterility, or a flower whose anthers produce no pollen. Beets normally are prodigious pollen producers. If you knock against ripe beet flowers, the pollen rises up in golden clouds and wind can carry the minuscule pollen miles away form one beet field into another. However, with a pollen-sterile female line and a pollen-producing male line, hybridizers could control the beet’s parentage.
Wisconsin, where 40 percent of the beets for processing are now grown, was the perfect research home for Gabelman’s studies. In the ‘50s, when he arrived in Wisconsin beet seed was rarely hybridized. With nonhybridized beets, said Gableman, all the plants in one field are genetically quite dissimilar, or heterogeneous. You can’t ever be entirely sure of the plant characteristics that will arise from those plants’ seeds, “One advantage of a hybrid is that you can really develop quite homogeneous population. You can have same uniform color and size that you can’t have dependably with non-hybrids."
Gableman concentrated on creating hybrid seed that reliably produced a beet that was earlier, more uniformly sized and shaped, more intensely colored, more disease resistant, and higher in sugar content than any beet grown in the past. The increase in sugar content, said Gableman, “was a fairly easy and gratuitous occurrence. I had to go back to sugar beets for a lot of the genetic material I wanted to work with, and in the process of transferring genes for pigment and roundness, I was able to capture higher sugar,” Old table beet varieties had at most about 7 percent sugar content. “You can taste that difference,” said Gabelman.
In 1976, when the Food & Drug Administration banned two red dyes made from petroleum when tests failed to prove that they do not cause cancer, Gableman went to work on beet color. He wanted a beet whose pigments would be stable when heated and would not transmit the beet’s earthy flavor to the soda pops, gelatin desserts, yogurts, ice creams, salad dressings, cherry pies, pizzas, and candies in which red coloring was used. Gabelman “pyramided” the genes that directed the beet’s red pigment, and now, he said, “We are up to three-fold the color you find in normal red beets. ” Reverse osmosis is used, when necessary, to remove the beet flavor from the juice extract from which colorants are made.
The beet’s bright red pigment, betacyanin, stains porous surfaces, including wooden cutting boards, and for a few minutes will leave a red tinge on cuticle and tongues and teeth. (“The beet is the murderer, ”Tom Robbins writer in his novel Jitterburg Perfume, “returned to the scene of the crime.”)
Some beet eaters, several hours after eating beets, notice that their urine has turned a torrid bright pink. According to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, “The ability to metabolize the beet’s bright red pigment, betacyanin, is controlled by a single genetic locus; those people who have inherited two recessive genes pass the pigments in their urine.” Flamingo breeders feed beets to their birds to intensify the color in the flamingo’s pink feathers.
Gableman advised, “If you cook beets thoroughly, you will not see anything in the bathroom. But if the beet is partially cooked, the pigment will go through the urinary tract and scare the hell out of some people.”
Wisconsin, Texas, New York, and Oregon are the big states for beets grown for canning and food color. Curious, though, about beets in California . I telephoned U. C. Davis’s Vegetable Crop Department and asked for their resident beet expert.
From the VegCrop office a cheerful voice suggested I chat with Professor Vince Rubatzky (a name that sounded as if it should have something to do with beets). Moments later Rubatzky came on the line. He apologized, saying he didn’t know how much he could help. “Not much call for beet information here in California. Most of the beets we eat in California are carried home in cans. Probably no more than a couple hundred acres of beets are growing in all the state. It’s a very neglected item. We could grow them. They’re just not popular.”
“Fresh beets, ” said Rubatzky, “are kind of challenging to homemakers. The beets get their hands all reddish and they really don’t know how to prepare them. They have to be washed off, and most people don’t know how to peel them, don’t know that they can be blanched and their skin sloughed off. So they take a carrot peeler to them and they have some trouble with that method. A little bit of problem of that nature and people don’t do it a second time. They run away from it. And, in the present-day environment, with two-couple wage earners, it’s easier to open up a can. So, beets are a vanishing vegetable.
“We, here at the university, neglect beets too. In the Bay Area, some small gardeners will bunch up some beets and bring them in to sell as fresh-market produce. But I doubt if in the whole Bay Area they could use an acre’s worth of beets in a day.”
As to why beets for processing aren’t raised in any great number in California, Rubatzky said that it’s cheaper to raise beets in cooler climates and on land where they can be grown without irrigation. In the big beet states, farmers raise beets as rotation crop. “Just something,” said Rubatzky, “to pick up some change.”
Rubatzky ended our chat on a pessimistic note. “Beets,” he predicted, “will slowly disappear, like Brussels sprouts.”
But when I telephoned Petoseed’s research centre at Woodland in Northern California, resident beet expert Al Burkett disagreed with Rubatzky’s prediction. The Petossed Company is one of the world’s top five vegetable seed developers. Petoseed grows four varieties of beet for seed — Sangria, Detroit Dark Red Short Top, Ruby Queen, and Early Wonder Tall Top. Burkett, who specializes in onions, pickling cucumbers, and beets, currently has four hybrid beets in field trials. He said he didn’t think beets would vanish. Salad bars, he noted, can’t do without the obligatory bowl of pickled beets, and Russians and Eastern Europeans won’t ever quit making borscht.
If you raise your own beets, pull them from the garden when they’re only a bit bigger than golf balls. (I’ve grown beets in big flower pots, and if you don’t have a garden, you might want to try this.) Larger beets tend to be woody. If you buy beets at the market, find bunches with the large fresh leaves attached. (Beets belong to the Chenopodiaeceae, or Goosefoot family, so called because some species have leaves that resemble the webbed shape of a goose foot. ) Once you have your bunch of beets home, cutoff the leaves an inch above the beet bottom, so stubs of stem remain, Put the leaves aside; they can be chopped, steamed, and served alongside the root. Don’t trim off the beet’s long root end, or tail. Cutting off stem or root end will encourage beets to bleed into cooking water. Rinse the beets and scrub the skins gently, being careful not to break the skin. Cook in boiling water until tender when pierced. Drain, plunge in cold water for several minutes, then slip off the skin and chop away stem and root ends. The skin comes off easily when the beet’s done.
You can stop here, if you wish, slice your beets horizontally in thin slices and serve warm with melted butter and salt and pepper atop steamed beet greens. Or, you can make a glamorous salad by arranging thinly sliced beets, onion rings. Slices of a ruddy blood orange, and chunks of blue cheese on steamed chopped beet greens that you’ve let cool. Drizzle all this with olive oil and juice from a blood orange and lemon. Then top with toasted walnuts.
You can make serviceable borscht that begins with canned julienned beets and canned beef bouillon (the late British food writer Jane Carigson made her borscht with canned beets). But a from scratch borscht isn’t that difficult to make, and almost any cookbook offers a basic recipe.
If you don’t want to cook or eat beets, you may want to read about them. Tom Robbins’ novel Jitterburg Perfume begins and ends with beets, and at every plot turn, a beet shows up. “The beet, ” Robbins wrote, “is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion. Tomatoes are justly enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.” The beet, Robbins concludes, ”in the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.”