True confession, I did not go 50 years without eating a beet. Not so many years ago on a fine English summers day around lunchtime...
I heard the word and I knew what it meant but my first thought was to beat a hasty retreat.
"Beet?" Aunt Gwen smiled and offered a small, delecate porcelain bowl filled with whole beets. Not slices. I could handle a slice. Whole beets. They were leering at me. I could hear them snickering, "Heh heh heh. Comin' to get ya, boy! Uncle LJ's comin' t' get ya!"
"Lovely beee-eets," Gwen sang! Even at her advanced age Gwen had a melodic voice. Stuff my ears with wax lest I fall prey to the Siren song, "Beee-eets!"
Gwen cooked as well as she sang. Everything from scratch, from memory, by instinct. She canned her own vegetables, created her own relishes. Her husband made fruit wine. Lunch at their house was an experience I looked forward to for years at a time.
No doubt Gwen pickled her own beets. No doubt she either grew them in her garden or selected them by hand at the local market. I had a vision of her humming to herself in her tiny kitchen, experienced hands trimming the beets, an exotic liquor of salts and spices simmering on her stove. She would have talked to the beets and packed them with care into jars selected especially for their beetiness. Nothing less than Beet Nirvana.
As if in a trance floating above my body I looked down and saw myself pick one, two, then three beets from the bowl and place them on my plate. Then, with a jolt, I came to, looked down and the beets were still there! Not a dream, not a dream. As a bead of sweat formed on my forehead I loaded up with some Stilton cheese, a few crackers, some celery and grabbed a large glass of apple wine.
Downing half a glass of wine as fortification, I focused on the beet willing it to disappear. The beet looked back at me and smiled. Carefully I sliced off a tiny sliver. No, it was no good. A tiny sliver would not get the job done. I had three beets to eat so I might as well get going. With the speed of a mongoose I sliced a beet in half, forked into my mouth, chomped it three times and swallowed fast.
As I paused for the dreaded beet flavour to permeate my sinuses the most amazing thing happened. A miracle, really. My mouth was making happy noises. My tongue signaled my brain for More Beet.
More Beet! More Beet!
Yes, it was true. I couldn't believe it. A tasty beet. Very tasty. Downright yummy. I polished off the remaining beets in short order and went into the kitchen for more. Although I didn't keep count, I think I gobbled down at least nine.
Ah, Gwen, you're a culinary genius if you can pickle a beet that I will eat, nay, relish. I pondered the secret ingredients she might have used. Cumin? Mediterranean Sea salt? Special hybrid herbs lovingly grown in her garden?
Finally I decided to simply ask her for the recipe. She had given me recipes in the past, and even if this was an instinctive recipe containing a little of this and a pinch of that, I might get enough of it to pickle my own beets.
I couldn't believe what I was thinking! Pickle my own beets? Was I stark raving mad? Yes, I was! Mad for Gwen's beets. Intoxicated by that ruby red, crunchy, briny-sour, mouth-watering unique beet taste. It was to be mine.
Later that afternoon, when the washing up had been completed and people were dozing in various chairs and on various sofas, and just before it was time to make tea, I caught Gwen alone in her garden tending to what looked like special hybrid herbs. I struck up a subtle conversation.
"Well, Gwen, you can't beat this weather," I said casually. "Nope, can't beat it."
"Speaking of beets," I continued, "I must compliment you on the wonderful beets you served at lunch today. It's an understatement to say that I am not a beet fan, and, to be honest, I go out of my way to avoid them. But, your beets, Gwen, were fantastic. I've never had anything quite like your beets and, well, I have a big favor to ask."
Gwen put down her pruning scissors, turned and looked up at me. She knew I liked to cook and appreciated fine food. I had asked for her recipes before and she was so delighted she had written them out by hand on little yellow recipe cards decorated with Bo Peep and her flock. I was imagining the card already: Gwen's Beet Recipe. Bo Peep gazing up in admiration.
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble," I pressed, "I'd be honored if you'd share your pickled beet recipe with me. I promise to do my best and treat the beets with as much care and devotion as you do." I was starting to ramble, so I shut up abruptly.
Gwen paused. She furrowed her brow in thought, then turned to me and said, "Beets? Pickled beets?"
I nodded. "The ones we had at lunch," I said, "I'd like the recipe. Please."
"Oh," she mused, "I don't have a recipe for those. No, I'm afraid, no recipe."
"Just tell me how you make them!" I was getting a little strident. "I'll memorize it!"
"Well," she said quietly, "I don't make them at all."
"You don't?" I felt lightheaded. Things were going grey.
"Oh, no," Gwen continued, "I buy them at Safeway. They were on sale this week..."