Summer Beets

Last week I had dinner with some long-time friends that I haven’t seen in ages – this was so good for my soul.

She is Australian, he is American – we are all three now living in Texas – though Melbourne is dear to us all.  As is often the case in expat living, comparisons and contrasts between host and home countries bubble their way to the top of the conversation column, and we started talking about food items we miss from Australia, and those that seem difficult to acquire or are somehow ‘different’ in the US.  We started with the usual, Vegemite, Cherry Ripes and Twisties!  But it wasn’t long before beetroot appeared on the list.

I have a special penchant for beetroot – it’s odd, I know, but there is an amity, a simpatico, between me and the humble beet.  

In Australia, we call beets, beetroot – I really don’t know why, other than that’s what they are called in Britain.  And when challenged by American friends, I have no defense.  Afterall, as I am logically told, we don’t say carrot root or radish root.  Of course, in any search on why there is a difference in the names given to vegetables between the British and the Americans, all I can find is a claim that the Americans shortened beetroot to beet simply because they are far too busy for the second syllable (not sure this holds up when I consider that the Brits too, don’t say carrot root!)

When I first moved to Texas over a decade ago, one of the items I frequently requested from home, for visitors to bring across for me, was tinned beetroot.  I kid you not.  I couldn’t find a brand of beets here in the US that satisfied my craving for Golden Circle beetroot.  Pickled, sweet, sliced beetroot.  Delicious!  My favourite way to have beets though, is freshly roasted.  Each beet wrapped in its own foil packet with some salt, pepper, olive oil and roasted in the oven.  Tinned beetroot is almost a different food.  (But I still love it!)  Australians are well known for their love of beetroot, and anyone who knows anything, knows that a ‘burger is only complete with a slice of beetroot!

There is something wonderful about certain foods, and preparations, that remind us of childhood, or summer, or both.  Sliced beetroot for me, as a side dish on the dinner table, reminds me of summer, and of home.  It is actually a winter vegetable, but oh so sweet if harvested in spring or summer.

The beet’s scientific name is Beta Vulgaris.  Both the taproot (what we usually call a beet, or beetroot) and the dark green leaves are edible and are highly nutritious.   Beets are heart healthy, the root is a rich source of B-complex vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium, copper and manganese.  The beet also contains potassium which helps lower heart rate and regulate metabolism.  All good stuff.  The beet root itself contains a form of the pigment betalain, and depending on the exact type and concentration of betalain, beets can be golden, red or purple.  Betalain, which cannot be broken down by the body, has been used as a dye for centuries.

Magenta is the colour of beet juice.

There are certain times or events in life that cause you to pause and reflect; on where you’ve been, who you are, and where you’re going.  Often, what seems a ripple in time, can change you, and afterwards, you are never the same.  I am drawn to stories, either real or imagined, where people find themselves at such points of transformation.  The circumstances, the revelations, the fundamental humanity that reveals itself, has endless appeal to me.  I think it is because in these pivotal moments of our lives we gain a clarity of our human frailty, and in that, our connectedness.

During the (Australian) summer of 2010-2011, I stayed with my Sister and her family for several weeks.  (One of my greatest indulgences in life is travelling home to Australia from Texas every Christmas and therefore, having two summers every year!)  But that summer, I stayed longer than usual.

That summer was one of both joys and sorrows, special and ordinary days, and unforgettable experiences.  Three unconnected stories cemented my fascination with beets, and the colour of beet juice, magenta.  And magenta has become emblematic for me and my quest for harmony and balance.

In Ridley Scott’s film adaptation of Peter Mayle’s novel, A Good Year, workaholic Max, the main protagonist, inherits his Uncle Henry’s Vineyard in Provence, and circumstances lead him to deeply consider the way he is living his life.  Towards the end of the film, Max recollects a childhood moment, where his Uncle Henry responds to his question about why the Vintner is singing as he tends the vines, “Well you see Max, the terroir needs more than sun and rain – it needs harmony; it needs balance.”  And then pressing his finger to his lips in a quietening motion, he draws Max away from the singing Vintner to allow him to do his work – the work of singing to the terroir and the vines.  No matter how many times I watch the movie, that scene never fails to make me feel at once a sense of delight and a twang of heartache.

Perhaps I am so moved by this movie and this line, as much like the terroir and Max – my life, all of our lives – need harmony, need balance, and yet, despite understanding this, my personal pursuit to find harmony and balance continues to be my greatest challenge.  (Note, my personal circumstances are far less romantic than those of Max, a rich bond trader in London inheriting a Vineyard in Provence!)

Connecting harmony, balance and life’s meaning to a vegetable and the colour of its juice may seem strange, but it is amazing how psychological anchors can affect our thinking; for good, and sometimes, unfortunately, for bad.  In this case, it is a matter of intentional, positive thinking – anchored to a summer season traversed with love, whimsy, and three odd tales about beets.

That summer, I joined in with the nightly ritual of reading to my Sister’s children at bedtime.  My niece was reading Beverly Cleary’s Ellen Tebbits.  Ellen is in the third grade, and she is learning how to become a good, best friend to newcomer, Austine.  Ellen’s biggest fear is that her school friends will learn of her shameful secret, that her Mother makes her wear woolen underwear.  Even sixty years after being published, my seven year old niece was captivated by this story.  One day, after learning in class about biennial plants, of which the beet is an example, Ellen decides to pull a wild beet plant that she has seen on her way to school and take it as a gift to her teacher.  Such a strange story line – but my seven year old niece remained riveted as we followed Ellen’s antics in picking this beet on her way to school.  The beet is six inches across, and takes Ellen some considerable effort to pull from the ground.  She is muddy, worn out, and then the woman whose yard Ellen has picked it from sees her from the front window of her house.  The woman is very cross, but relents, saying, ‘It’s too old and tough to eat,’ and let’s Ellen keep it.  Ellen, her freshly starched dress stained with beet juice, takes the plant and the beetroot to school.  My niece and I laugh about the beet stains and the ‘tough’ old beet.  “It’s just like that beetroot from our neighbour’s yard,” my niece says excitedly.

Neighbors of my Sister’s family shared some of their home-grown harvest.  Amongst the spoils, an oversized heirloom beetroot – ‘She’s a beauty’, the proud grower proclaimed.  Despite my brother-in-law’s exceptional culinary skills, and the fact that this was freshly picked produce, (and that I usually love beets prepared in any way!) – it was terrible, truly terrible. Of course, it looked so pretty – every slice revealing another round of magenta and white hoops, teasing us into preparing for a flavorful sensation of sweet goodness. It was at best papery, resembling something more like the taste of wood with its sharp, dry edges.  Tasteless.  I was so disappointed, the heirloom variety’s good looks of candy stripes proving to be a false promise.  Too old and tough to eat.

Now two beet stories is interesting, co-incidental perhaps.  But considering I had just picked up Tom Robbins’ novel “Jitterbug Perfume”, I felt a cosmic synchronicity was perhaps at play.

Jitterbug Perfume is an interesting novel, filled with hilarity that is at times dark, frequently crude, crucially absurd, and fantastical in its characters and plotlines.  The reader is taken from New Orleans to Seattle to Paris, and throughout the ancient Eurasian world, from the 8th century to current day.  In no uncertain way, the humble beet plays an important part in threading the story together.  In fact, “The beet is the most intense of vegetables” is the first line of the book.  And as the opening chapter ends, it is claimed that an old Ukranian proverb warns, “A tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil.”  I was intrigued from the get go and Tom Robbins did not disappoint.

The beet, despite its humble status, it’s ugliness and rough misshapen, hairy root, becomes somewhat the hero of the story, and accomplishes delivering one of the lessons from Jitterbug Perfume, that life’s glory comes from places where it might be least expected.  And indeed, that summer of anguish, for there is more to this story for another day, showed me how, from sadness and life’s worst of times, that love and hope and life’s best of times can prevail.

And one warm January evening that summer, as I prepared dinner for my Sister and her Family, while washing some ruby beetroots for roasting, I, like Ellen Tebbits, got beet stains on my clothes and the juice splayed out on my white tee shirt a brilliant magenta.

“Breathe properly. Stay curious. And eat your beets.” (Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume)

 

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