By Barbara Rust Brown
Today the nutrition-packed beet is considered a “super food,” credited with everything from lowering blood pressure and increasing energy to fighting inflammation and detoxifying the body. Beets are plentiful at outdoor markets from late summer well into fall.
While the attention being paid to this colorful vegetable is new, beets themselves are not. The leafy vegetable known as Swiss chard is really a form of beet dating back thousands of years, according to Wesley Greene in Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way. But the red root vegetable with which we are more familiar was first recorded in Germany in 1542. Greene reports the first English description of the red beet refers to it as the “Romaine beet,” suggesting it may actually be another innovation of the Italians, whom he calls “Europe’s consummate vegetable gardeners.”
Greene’s research confirms that beets were found in Colonial kitchen gardens in America, even though they were not as common as carrots, radishes, turnips or parsnips.
“Beets are harvested beginning early in the fall,” said Nicole Justice Green, domestic arts specialist who tends kitchen gardens in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area. “They were easily preserved in root cellars and provided hearty fare to Colonists throughout the long winter.”
Green found several beet recipes in period cookbooks, some with directions as simple as boiling until tender and mashing them like potatoes. The more flavorful recipe she selected is adapted from a 19th-century recipe for stewing beets.
“We offer freshly harvested beets on our menu throughout the summer and well into the fall,” said Travis Brust, executive chef at the Williamsburg Inn. Many of the selections are what one might expect — salads and garnishes that add color and zest to a meal.
But it’s not unusual for Brust to present an unexpected selection: beets as dessert!
“Don’t use red beets for this dish,” he cautions, “or you’ll have ‘red’ everywhere. The color for this recipe comes from late harvest blackberries.”
“Making sorbet from fresh beets is a form of preservation,” Brust said. “It’s not what we typically think of as preserving, like jams and jellies, but by freezing it we’re preserving it for a later date.” The recipe also offers a creative use for the tops of fennel. “No one knows what to do with fennel fronds,” he added.
Serves 4-6. Recipe adapted from Miss Leslie’s Directions for Cookery by Elize Leslie (31st Ed. Philadelphia, 1848). Reprint, Arno Press (New York, 1973).
In the 18th century, beets could be easily prepared — simply boiled and then mashed (left) as Historic Foodways interpreters demonstrate in the Governor’s Palace kitchen. (Darnell Vennie/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Makes ½ gallon (use a juicer to make juice from lemons, beets, berries and orange). Serves 6-8
Colonial Williamsburg is the only place in the world where 18th-century rifles are replicated using Colonial-era tools. The shop’s three gunsmiths must master the tricks of the various trades that constitute gunsmithing.
A center of commerce, politics and education in the 18th century, Williamsburg became a necessary destination for anyone looking to do any manner of business with Virginia. That included the American Indian nations.