When I was a kid, I wasn’t a huge fan of most vegetables, but one that I absolutely loved was beets. My dad’s mom used to grow and can them.
Not that canning vegetables was unusual. Most of my family had a garden, and what couldn’t be eaten was canned. This included corn, okra, tomatoes, and lots of other veggies.
But, my grandmother was the only one in the family that I recall who grew and canned beets. Or, as some of the older folks called them, “sugar beets.”
My grandfather was a big fan of breaking for lunch from his blacksmith shop for what he referred to as a “Po-Boy Meal.”
It was called such because what we ate was an amalgamation of whatever was quick and easy from the fridge, and because we all came from very humble beginnings.
Some of my fondest memories are of spending time with my grandparents, listening to their stories, learning how to be a good person, and just being a part of their day.
My cousin Roger and I would spend summer days in the blacksmith shop, “helping.” Hindsight, we were actually in the way, but our grandfather allowed us to shadow him. He showed us around the shop, how to make things, weld, and run a business.
He would pay us each a quarter for our day’s worth of help, and we got a Po-Boy lunch at midday.
My grandmother would bring out the remnants of the morning’s breakfast. Cold biscuits, sausage, and bacon were the building blocks for lunch. She’d also throw in a stack of sliced baloney – or as my grandfather called it, “Center-Cut Round Steak.”
She’d add various canned items to our plate, including pickled okra, onions, and sugar beets.
She always made sure that there were plenty of beets. She knew how much I loved them.
My grandfather would remove his gray work cap, we’d bow our heads, and he’d bless the food.
“Eat up, Po Boys!” he’d say.
The first thing I went for were those savory, sliced, red beets. I would devour them. Man, were they good.
There were myriad ways to eat a Po Boy Meal. We could make little sandwiches using my grandmother’s homemade biscuits or we could eat each item one at a time.
I would watch my grandfather for cues on how to assemble a Po Boy Meal. He would build his meal from the biscuits up. So, that’s what I would do.
If you’ve never tried it, take a cold biscuit and wedge a piece of baloney (center-cut round, of course), a slice of bacon, and a sliced sugar beet in there. Man, that’s good eatin’.
When you’re young, you never think about the finality of life. You live as if tomorrow is promised. I wish I had known better and, while life was happening, I had relished every moment with my grandparents.
Memories are great, but they are a distant substitute for embracing the moment.
My grandfather passed young. He wasn’t much older than I am now. But, he gardened until the end. As a matter of fact, the last thing he did was till the garden.
After he passed, my grandmother continued to grow a garden, but on a much smaller scale.
Many vegetables were dropped from cultivation, and unfortunately, one of them was beets.
I went many years trying to find a suitable substitute for my grandmother’s sugar beets, but nothing ever came close. The stores sell beets in a jar, but they’re a poor second. Luby’s has them, and they’re OK, but they aren’t the same.
So, I just resigned myself to the fact that when my grandmother stopped growing and canning beets, that was it.
But, sometimes, God gives you someone who can work magic. That someone is my wife.
Previously, in this same column space, I’ve recounted how my wife and I found our way back to our family roots for gardening. And this year, a little more magic came back from the past.
I had made special requests before regarding specific vegetables I would like to see come from those fertile land spaces behind our house. She had grown eggplant, peppers, and other special requests, but I’d not requested beets. Until now.
My wife’s not afraid to try anything when it comes to cultivating the food we eat, so I asked if she would try to grow beets – and she accepted the challenge.
She ordered the seeds, sprouted them, and planted them.
She watered them, weeded around them, nurtured them, and made sure they thrived. All for me.
Slowly, the beets began to do their thing.
I watched them. They rose from between the onions, garlic, and bean fence. Their leaf tops, which are also edible, began to wave in the breeze, as if to tell me, “Hello. We are on our way!”
Beets remind me of onions and potatoes. They grow in the soil, and like onions and potatoes, you don’t know what you’ll pull up until you pull it up.
As I write this, I am looking at the first beet harvest. She grew dark red and gold beets. I had no idea there was such a thing as gold beets, but there is. And tonight, since I can’t can them quickly enough to have with this evening’s dinner, I will try a recipe for grilled beets.
Thanks to Beaver Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri, and some French chef I found on YouTube, I will enjoy the first homegrown beets I’ve had in over 40 years.
The only thing missing will be my grandparents. But thanks to their influence and my memories of them, the beet goes on.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon.
Email John at John@TheCountryWriter.com