Hey, if you read the beet post from last week, then please don’t read this suspiciously similar one. But I did flesh it out into an essay for my Sunday Arts & Books column on why some people hate beets and some love them.
TURN THE BEET AROUND…
A couple of weeks ago I found some good-looking beets at a local farmers market. They weren’t bulbous like typical beets but rather elongated, like miniature sweet potatoes. I had a feeling that they’d roast nicely, and they did — each individually wrapped in foil and cooked on a sheet pan in a 400-degree oven for about an hour. The skins peeled right off, and the tender beets sliced into pretty, uniform rounds.
Now came the hard part: trying to get my family to eat this suspect vegetable.
I have learned and observed that no other vegetable so divides a group of people like beets.
“I love red beets,” my mother always said when we made our weekly family visit to the Hot Shoppes cafeteria near our house. She always selected the small dish of pickled beet slices at the beginning of the food line, next to the maraschino-cherry-topped cottage cheese and canned fruit salad. She savored each dripping round, and I knew it was one of those flavors of her childhood that I would never fully understand. I thought the beets were fine. Sweet. Tangy. What’s not to like? But they had nothing over Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.
My mom ate beets only in restaurants because they got such a mixed reaction at home. My dad and a couple of my siblings couldn’t tolerate them. Something about the flavor — that entwined double helix of sugar and dirt — registered as grosser than gross.
My wife, for her part, experienced serious beet trauma as a child. She grew up in one of those houses where the kids had to finish everything on their plates, even gruesome beets dripping their crimson blood over everything. She tried (unsuccessfully) to hide them in her napkin and (unsuccessfully) to feed them to the dog. Usually she ended up staging a beet standoff and didn’t get dessert.
Those dense, clammy red beets my mom so loved and my wife so hated got a run for their money about 15 years ago when a new generation of kinder, gentler beets emerged. Baby beets, no bigger than golf balls, were the rage. Fanciest of all were Chioggia beets, an Italian variety that displayed candy-striped circles of red and white when cut raw.
These small beets — red, orange, pink, white — were both sweet and earthy, yes, but not that cocktail of granulated sugar and potting soil. They made beet lovers out of some beet haters, particularly when paired with fresh goat cheese, which has a special funkiness that covers the wet dirt flavor the way deodorant masks flop sweat.
And so I sliced my farmers market beets into a salad, thinking of all the tricks that would make them palatable for the three girls and dubious wife gathered around the table. I heaped a platter with all their favorites — arugula from the garden, avocado, goat cheese (Spanish Leonora, my current fave) and snipped basil. I dressed the beets with good olive oil, salt, crushed garlic and a several shots of Spanish sherry vinegar.
The results? As I had predicted, two of my kids went for the combination, even if they didn’t eat every single beet slice on their plates. But they looked like they appreciated the basic sweet-meets-sharp, earthy-meets-funky, flavor profile of this salad.
On the other hand, my wife took a polite bite before zeroing in on the cheese and other vegetables free of red beet stain. My other daughter spit her one bite of beet into a napkin.
Some people, I suspect, are just born with taste buds that will never, ever appreciate the flavor of a beet.