Top | First Person

The beet goes on

(article, Susan Troccolo)

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I live in Portland, Oregon, where we have water, sun, and a long growing season. In a place this garden-friendly, where root vegetables grow thick and plump, you’d think I could grow bushels of beets with nary a trowel. But no. 

“Beets are not only commonly grown in home gardens because of their easy culture and quick productiveness, but tens of thousands of acres are grown annually in the United States for canning.” Over the years, quotes such as this Internet blurb have kept me hopeful. Tens of thousands of acres. Yet my mantra — “I am Ukrainian, I am entitled to grow beets” — has failed to produce results.

When I was a kid, my Ukrainian grandmother, Baba, forced beets upon me. Baba was obsessed with health. She was also obsessed with the end of the world. How she related the general state of American health with the end of the world was always a mystery to me, but somewhere under the wiry braids perched like a sweet roll on her head was an explanation; I just never heard it. 

[%image feature-image float=left width=350 caption="The bounty of beets." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/merlinpf"]

Baba may have escaped the Ukraine by coming to America in 1920 as a mail-order bride, but America had let her down, and now only food could atone. Borscht and holubtsi. Pierogies with sauerkraut. Quarts of prune juice, which she poured into light green Depression-era glasses with red and yellow flowers painted around their middles. 

I would come to Baba’s house, wipe my feet on the doormat, and stand at attention while she examined me with beady eyes. She would take bobby pins and pin my long straight bangs off my forehead. Then Baba would serve borscht — plain borscht that had never known the soothing effect of a dollop of sour cream — made from homegrown beets. 

Because of Baba, I had to grow beets. Here was a chance to rewrite personal history with my own borscht, dotted with plenty of sour cream and chives. I would eat jewel-toned beets with arugula, blue cheese, and walnuts. Roasted beets in extra-virgin olive oil with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Beet salads with Dijon mustard and watercress. 

Beets, I knew, were my destiny.

After the first two years — of seeds that didn’t germinate, of seedlings that drowned in spring rains — I redoubled my efforts. Using recycled yogurt tubs, I made individual little greenhouses for my beets. I made up songs to sing to them. Finally, in the third summer of my gardening life, I harvested one red beet. 

One.

One perfectly round Bulls Blood beet with a burst of healthy leaves above the surface that fooled me into thinking it was bigger than it was. 

It seemed important to be philosophical. So what if I grew only one crummy beet? Destiny takes time. My solitary and beautiful beet would not be wasted. I would prepare and eat this beet with love. 

Naturally, I needed guidance. The cookbooks on my kitchen shelf were no help at all: The Neurotic Hostess Cookbook, The Clay-Pot Cookbook, Rainy Day Breads, Fish Three Times a Week. Nothing to address the subtle textures and nuanced flavors of one red beet. Then I noticed a modest, unassuming book, its title in calligraphic letters: The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzo. 

I read the publisher’s comments: “The title is deceptive. This book is neither a study of ‘tea’ nor an esoteric study of Japan’s tea cult. Rather it is a magnificent attempt to make understandable, through the tea cult, the essence of Japanese culture, to reveal to the West a unified concept of nature and art blended into a harmony of daily living.” 

The harmony of daily living. There it was. The mundane is as important as the enlightened. There is no distinction between great and small. The seeker of perfection must apply the same diligence to both. As a seeker of perfection, I would apply these principles to my solitary beet. 

[%image beet float=left width=250 caption="The lonely beet." credit="Photo: iStockphoto/ViktorKitaykin"]

With Okakura Kakuzo in one hand and a strainer in the other, I walked out to the garden with measured pace and lofty intent.

Kneeling, I scratched into the wet dirt with my fingernails and felt the contours of my beet. I pulled, and it resisted. I wrenched. At last, my beet lay in a muddy lump in the bottom of the white colander. 

“There are three stages of boiling: the first boil is when the little bubbles, like the eye of fishes, swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle. Salt is put in the first boil, the tea in the second. At the third boil, a dipperful of cold water is poured into the kettle to settle the tea and revive the ‘youth of the water.’” Okakura Kakuzo’s words were very specific. I peered into the kettle with knitted brow, discerning bubbles from billows, intent on a precise rendering of the recipe.

My beet needed all the various stages of boiling to soften into tenderness. I dug out a linen napkin and clattered through the CD cases for just the right Rachmaninoff. Nothing was too good for my beet. Then I ladled the bright magenta ball onto a small white plate.

There it was. The product of days and nights of research, of moonlit song, of tiny greenhouses. Was I imagining it, or did my beet appear to smile? 

Now only one thing was missing: butter. The butter slid down the warm beet and made a pool of pink and yellow juice on the white plate. 

[%image susandog float=right width=300 caption="The author with her dog, Rufus." credit="Photo courtesy Susan Troccolo"]

At the kitchen table, I smoothed my napkin and closed my eyes in a small homage to Baba. Then, I pressed into the beet reverently with my fork. 

But the fork came down too fast, skidding off the beet and grating on the plate, and as it did, the beet launched itself into the air. 

Rachmaninoff swelled and combed through the light of the kitchen. The red orb seemed to stand still in its arc. The beet went on and on. Pure red momentum, my beet hit the refrigerator with a small thud, glanced off the floor, picked up a dust bunny, and rolled — leaving a trail of pink juice — to the middle of the floor. 

Malevolent, that’s what it was. The beet appeared almost smug. I’m going to compost the stupid beet. I’m going to give the dumb beet to the worms. 

At that moment, Rufus appeared around the corner. My very chubby dog. My Sumo Sheltie. He had heard the thud — his ears were trained for that thud — and there it was: something for him. Rufus eyed the beet and then looked at me. This was not something ordinary on the floor, like a potato chip or piece of celery that missed the chopping block. Best to proceed with caution. He sniffed towards the beet.

My beet! That’s my beet! Knocking The Book of Tea_ to the floor, I raced Rufus to the beet. Rufus’s paws flailed and slipped on the buttery floor as he tried to gain momentum. With my longer reach and my fork, I stabbed away until I had it. Then I popped the whole thing in my mouth, dust bunny and all. 

Rufus looked disgusted. I wiped juice from my lips with the back of my hand. It was not one of my finer moments. It was probably not what Okakura Kakuzo had in mind.

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h1. Featured recipe




This recipe was adapted from a dish served at Craft in New York City.

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I keep sowing, though. Baba was nothing if not persistent. Rows of golden beets, Bulls Blood beets, candy-cane-striped Chioggia beets. I grow them next to their kin, Swiss chard — which always produces a huge harvest — and hope that someday, maybe, before I’m using a walker and chewing with false teeth, I will be able to serve a platter of roasted homegrown beets with olive oil and kosher salt. 

And when that day finally comes, I won’t make anybody part their hair in the middle with bobby pins or drink prune juice for dessert. We'll just eat.

p(bio). Susan Troccolo used to have a real job in the high-tech world. Now she plays blues and bluegrass guitar, volunteers for Write Around Portland, and lives in Portland, Oregon.


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