Beets: An Ode to Childhood

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I first encountered beets as a little Amish girl where they made a weekly appearance at Sunday lunches after church.

Every Sunday, after the three-hour service finished, chaos promptly ensued. Kids ran laps around exasperated mothers, girls snickered in corners,  and men flipped long rows of benches into tables that quickly got filled with bowls of pickles, beets, homemade peanut butter (think marshmallow fluff meets peanut butter meets more sugar), plates of cheese, and endless loaves of homemade bread. That meal was (and still is) a set-in-stone tradition, and never changes except for slight variations in the peanut butter and cheese. And without fail, every Sunday, I stuffed myself full to the brim, gambling with how high I could pile my bread with peanut butter. I indulged in everything except the beet bowl. 

It wasn’t until years later, after I had already left home for Nashville, that I began craving beets. Or perhaps nostalgia had me all kinds of mixed up and I was simply craving the idea of beets and home and simpler times.

Whichever it was, the longing led me to the store where I picked up a simple $.89 jar of beets. And later, I ate the whole jar, completely amazed at how delicious they actually were.

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I then forgot about beets, save for the occasional visit home when a jar magically appeared among a hodgepodge of preserved foods and crackers and cheeses, until I picked up Nicole Gulotta’s Eat This Poem cookbook. I read that cookbook from front to back in just a few days, trying to note recipes along the way that I wanted to try. The one that intrigued me the most was her beet and farro salad.

So I roasted beets, peeled them, inking my hands in dark red, and saturated them in heavy drizzles of vinegar, sneaking a bite here and there. I dropped the beets over a bed of greens and grains, topped with goat cheese. And at our first bite, Joshua and I both looked at each other in complete wonder and delight at how perfectly tart and earthy and nutty the whole dish was. We couldn't stop eating. 

I now have such an emotional attachment to beets, so much so that sometimes I cry while they rest on my countertop and my stained hands stare up at me with that unmistakable purple-pink-red hue. Perhaps because they remind me of home, of childhood, of where I began as a little Amish girl, of what was taken, of what was given. 

It’s not the first time food has brought me to tears, because food is never just food, it’s always tangled up with memories and thoughtfulness and careful love and somebody's grandma. But with beets, it's a bit different: my body gets all welled up with a twisting, regretful kind of longing. Every time I prepare them, they transport me to Sunday afternoons of laughter echoing through barns, beet-stained fingers reaching across tables, popcorn bowls passed under trees. They take me back to summer afternoons of countertops lined with Mason jars, standing on chairs around the table with a giant pot of boiled beets and Momma showing us how to squeeze each one to slide the skin off, despite our disgust. They place me back in skips down to the root cellar, fingers grazing jars of quartered beets and pickles and beans and corn, eyes searching for the tomato juice that Momma guaranteed was on the third shelf.

They’re humble yet strong, able to withstand whatever pressure or heat administered to them. But in the process, they bleed, leaving behind evidence that they’ve been handled in stained red hands, distinct trails of purple dribbling down chins. 

These beets are like my father, my mother, my sister, my brotherspeople whose backs nearly broke under the pressure, the rejection, the outcast, the shame, the shunning. Yet on the other side, a resilience now shines through their bodies still standing strong, a resilience that harkens to the memory of their pain that refused to be lost in the process of transformation.

So I let the stains stay on my hands and I savor each bite because it's just one way I can honor these remarkable people and everything that they have taught me about love, forgiveness, and legacy. 
 

Beet Flatbread

When you take to the kitchen to make this delight, do so slowly. Give yourself room to breathe deeply, feel the weight of the beets, savor a small nab of the goat cheese. Beets, although humble in their composition, deserve the utmost respect and care. If you have no memories to invoke in the process, focus on creating new ones of your own. 

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Ingredients
4 medium beets
2 TBSP + 1 TSP balsamic vinegar, plus more for drizzling
1 TBSP  + 1 TSP olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3-4 ounces goat cheese
Arugula
Salt and pepper
4 wheat pitas*

Directions
Preheat your oven to 400. Wrap the beets in tin foil and stick in the oven after it’s been preheated. Start checking for doneness at 50 min by sticking a fork into a beet. If it slices in with no resistance, the beets are done. Remove from the oven and let cool at least 15 minutes.

When the beets are cooled but still warm, peel the outer layer of skin off and slice thinly. Add to a bowl and drizzle two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and one tablespoon of olive oil over them. Gently stir to mix together and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Let the beets sit for at least 30 minutes to soak in the flavor. Meanwhile, dress the arugula in the remaining teaspoons of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, tasting along the way and adding more to fit your acidity preference. Finish with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. 

To assemble, pinwheel the beets on the pita, top with arugula and goat cheese, and finish with additional drizzles of both balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

And then dive in. As J said, "It’s like a beet gyro!" Enjoy.

*If you want to make your pita homemade, I used my recipe from a few summers ago and simply subbed in one of the cups of AP flour for whole wheat flour. The touch of wheat brings a nuttiness to the dish that perfectly complements the earthy beets and equally nutty arugula. (To access the recipe, click on the link above and scroll all the way to the end of the post.)