This column appeared this date in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.
To “beet” or not to “beet,” that is the question. This is not a mere corruption of Shakespeare’s famous philosophical monologue on the merits of life or death. It is a serious philosophical question on the merits of beets.
There are those who dislike beets, and there are those for whom beets are a cultural touchstone, a symbol of gardens past and present, a connection with babas and great-babas reaching back to the Old Country. Beets are a warm bowl of borscht on a fall day, they are stuffed beet leaves in a sauce of cream and dill, they are pickled and relish, salads and side dishes. They are family dinners and fall suppers. In other words, for some folks in Saskatchewan, beets are more than just food. They are part of the family.
Growing up, beets weren’t part of my family tradition, but there were other foods that evoked a philosophical and emotional response. These include: saskatoon berries, apple pie, my mom’s homemade buns, grandma’s (and now my sister’s) kliesel and kartoffel, which is potatoes and dumplings fried up in butter, jam jams and garden peas. Since I’ve had a garden of my own, beets have come to symbolize the end of another growing season, good food in the larder and a pot of nourishing beet soup on the stove.
“Eating is one of the most fundamental ways in which we are at home in the world,” says Eric Dayton, a professor of philosophy at the University of Saskatchewan, who gave a talk recently in Saskatoon reflecting on philosophy and food. In other words, the familiarity of certain foods, and the ways in which we enjoy them, create an atmosphere of belonging and connect us to the place we call home.
It also connects us to the human family through time, since most foods we eat today have evolved through generations and generations of farming and preparation. It is amazing to reflect how the same food—be it beef, beans or beets—can evoke so many different places and cultures simply by the different methods of preparation and ways of serving it in a meal.
“Food is just as important as a cultural product as literature, art, music—it’s a gift by way of our cultural past,” says professor Dayton.
Sadly, he points out, this wonderful familiarity of food can also lead us to take it for granted, or worse, dismiss it as inconsequential. We simply stop thinking about it. We eat, but we are no longer aware of it as a gift and a good thing. We fail to respect the cook and the farmer. We consume, but not for physical or emotional nourishment. We become disconnected from the source and symbolism of the food we eat and, in the process, lose that sense of place and belonging that food can provide.
To “beet” or not to “beet”? It’s a matter of personal preference. But it doesn’t hurt to stop and philosophize about food now and then, and to remember what we love to eat, and why.
Here’s a recipe for my version of the delicacy called beetniks.
Beet Leaf Holopchi or Beetniks
A couple dozen larger beet leaves, wiped clean
Bread dough (a pound or so)
2 tbsp butter
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 cup cream
Handful of fresh dill
Pinch off a small nub of dough and roll it in your hands into an elongated shape. Place the dough on a beet leaf and roll the leaf around it (leaving the ends unwrapped). Place each roll into a buttered baking dish. Cover the dish with a clean kitchen towel and let the bread rise for an hour or so.
Heat the oven to 350°F. Bake the Beetniks for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, make the cream sauce: melt the butter in a saucepan, sauté the onion and garlic until soft, stir in the cream and fresh chopped dill. Bring to a bubbling simmer.
Remove the beetniks from the oven. Pour the cream sauce evenly over top. Return to the oven for ten minutes. Cool slightly and enjoy!