The lowly beet, a vegetable many of us look upon indifferently, has the highest sugar content of any vegetable. Well aware of this, early settlers here often grew beets for its sugar. During WW2, some enterprising Kings County farmers worked around strict rationing by boiling down beets to make sugar. Archives in the Kings County Museum tell us a sweet syrup was produced in the war years by local farmers through a process of grinding, cooking and straining the beet; according to one newspaper clipping in the archives, the ratio was something like 75 pounds of beets boiled down for a yield of a gallon of syrup.
This was one of the interesting facts Andrew Clinch mentioned recently at the Kings Historical Society. Clinch reviewed the history of beet growing and after listening to his talk, I’ll never look at this vegetable the same way again.
As far as most people are concerned the beet is a lowly vegetable. It’s well down on the list of table fare compared to, say, potatoes, carrots and onions and is overlooked most of the time. Yet, historically speaking, that homely clump of beets you see at the roadside market and in pickle jars at the supermarket was one of the earliest vegetables to be cultivated. As Clinch pointed out the beet has been grown for thousands of years – there’s evidence of it being cultivated in 2000 b.c. In Greek and Roman times it was poplar as a medicine, a beverage and an aphrodisiac.
Surprisingly, the humble beet is recognised today as a super vegetable, Clinch said. So the Greeks and Romans, the settlers and the farmers who boiled beets to make sugar were on to something.
Maybe so, but along with Brussels sprouts, beets were one of the vegetables my brothers and I detested harvesting in the truck garden my father religiously planted every spring. Just as religiously, my mother boiled and peeled the beets, pickling them for the winter. While they were sweet they had a damp earth, turn-you-off taste when opened in January and February. We had to be encouraged to eat them. “They’re good for your heart,” my mother used to say.
I figured beets and heart health was simply old country folklore, a myth in other words. But as mentioned, beets are now recognized as a super veggie and Mom was right. There’s something in beets that reduces blood pressure, which is good for the heart of course. Also, as Andrew Clinch noted, beets are high in fibre, rich in various vitamins and even have a “feel good chemical” that’s also found in chocolate. You can even make beet wine; and beet based brownies (!) which Andrew Clinch passed out during his talk.
There may even be something to the belief by early Greeks and Romans that beets were an aphrodisiac. Which may be why people once insisted on having beets on the dinner table year around.