BEETS GO WAY, WAY BACK — THEY ORIGINATED along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and were believed to be discovered as early as 2,000 BC. Ancient Greeks utilized the leafy greens for cooking and for pain relief (Hippocrates used the leaves for binding and dressing wounds). They referred to beets as teutlion, because they believed the leaves resembled squid tentacles. But it was the Romans who really put the veggie on the map—they incorporated the leaves and the roots into cuisine.
In fact, ancient Romans believed that beets and their juice were aphrodisiacs—frescoes of beets decorate the walls of a brothel in Pompeii. It’s not all folklore: Beets contain tryptophan and betaine, substances that promote a feeling of well-being, and boron, a trace mineral which can increase the body’s level of sex hormones. Beyond being a potential love potion, beets are very nutritious, packed with folate, vitamins A and K, potassium, copper, and manganese, as well as plenty of fiber.
Beets eventually made their way to the U.S. and were well established by the 18th century. The Shakers are among those who deserve credit for mass distribution of the plant—they were one of the first to dive into the commercial seed market. Yet, beets still remain controversial (the Obamas were vocally anti-beet; they refused to grow them in the White House Garden). According to Catherine Kaczor, the marketing manager at the Hudson Valley Seed Company (HVSC) in Accord, the geosmin compound in beets “causes a lot of divisiveness [because] it makes beets taste earthy… or just like plain dirt sometimes.”
Luckily for those of us who love beets, the Hudson River (and its many tributaries) creates rich, alluvial soil that’s perfect for growing them—and red, golden, and Chioggia beets are widely available. Consider branching out beyond red: golden beets are “famously sweet,” says Kaczor. Chioggia are in a category of their own—best eaten raw, this showy beet with its red-and-white bulls-eye pattern is perfect for holidays and dinner parties. Yellow or white beets, though less accessible, are mild in flavor (and don’t stain your fingers). Kaczor recommends stopping by local farms like Long Season Farm in Kerhonkson or Rise and Root in Chester if you can’t find them in grocery stores. Just keep in mind whether you’re shopping for beets at a farmers market or at the grocery store—the smaller the better. Large beets are less flavorful.
If you want to try growing beets in your backyard, the HVSC sells a variety of organic seeds, including their Brilliant Beet Blend, a combination of Detroit Dark Red, Cylindra, Bulls Blood, Touchstone Gold, and Chioggia. Their goal is to educate the region in seed production and stewardship. HVSC is currently working with Solveig Hansen, a plant breeding and genetics expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to increase the seed stock of new and rare beet varieties. You can order HVSC seeds at hudsonvalleyseed.com; check out their blog for gardening advice and storage tips.