Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Passion of the Beet

The world of beets is shadowed and labyrinthine, rooted in the secret, craggy corners of earthy hearts. Does eating them help channel the inky passions that course through our animal bodies and release them into the light of day? Or do they merely worm their way into our souls to stain our guilty consciences even further with their knowing tint?

Here is a beet salad with hazelnuts that I made for my sister while visiting her in Los Angeles in August. I used the beet recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook I wrote about in an earlier post, in which I ended up with Lady Macbeth fingers.

It is hard not to feel unsettled when handling wine-dark beets. It seems I am not alone in this sentiment. Below, I share with you the opening chapter of Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume. It will irrevocably change the way you think about beets. It may also cause you to reconsider radishes, tomatoes, turnips, cherries, and carrots. Bon appetit:


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.

Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.

The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip . . .

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin's favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.

In Europe there is grown widely a large beet they call the mangel-wurzel. Perhaps it is mangel-wurzel that we see in Rasputin. Certainly there is mangel-wurzel in the music of Wagner, although it is another composer whose name begins, B-e-e-t—.

Of course, there are white beets, beets that ooze sugar water instead of blood, but it is the red beet with which we are concerned; the variety that blushes and swells like a hemorrhoid, a hemorrhoid for which there is no cure. (Actually, there is one remedy: commission a potter to make you a ceramic asshole—and when you aren't sitting on it, you can use it as a bowl for borscht.)

An old Ukranian proverb warns, "A tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil."

That is a risk we have to take.

Pictured here: Vegetables worthy of Snow White's blood-red lips—(l-r) chioggia beets, Arkansas black apple, red onion, radishes, early girl tomatoes.


Adam Ahmed said...

I thought that giant red onion was a pomegranate! You should add the pomegranate to that collection of creepy crops.

kale daikon said...

And I even had a pomegranate in my hanging fruit basket! I will take photos, you get to work on that commission. Collaboration to come...

Keith said...

By 1992 I had the opening pages of Jitterbug Perfume memorized. I loved that book. I love beets, and from childhood reading of Greek mythology, I learned a great appreciation for pomrgranates (story of Hades and Persephone)

i love your post. Thank you.