A plant of the family Chenopodium, and genus Beta, having a succulent root much use for food, and also for making sugar. The two kinds most commonly cultivated in gardens are the red (B. vulgaris), and white (B. cicla). — Webster, 1882
Valentine Greetings: My heart BEETS for you. – Antique Valentine with large red, heart-shaped beet root on the front
From Wisconsin to Dakota Territory, the Ingalls family grows, eats, and preserved garden beets (Beta vulgaris), a close relative of the much larger white sugar beet (containing from 10 to 20 percent sucrose) and swiss chard, a variety of B. vulgaris grown for its leafy greens. Both the roots and leaves of garden beets can be eaten, but in the Little House books, it’s the globe-shaped roots that are most mentioned.
Growing Beets. Garden beets can withstand a frost, so beet seeds can be sown up to a month before the average date of your location’s last frost. Make successive plantings every couple of weeks in order to have a continuous supply. Plant in a well-drained location in full sun. Since beets are a root crop, they appreciate extra potassium to assure good root growth; the Ingallses and Wilders would have tilled wood ashes into the soil. Thin rows so that beets stand about two inches apart; beets mature in about sixty days. Beets that get too big are tough, and no amount of cooking will tenderize them, so harvest roots when they are one to three inches in size, depending on variety. You can pick greens along the row during the growing season and use as you would salad greens, but if you’re growing for roots, you can’t remove too many from each plant, as the green feed the roots. If harvesting greens only, do so when they are about six inches tall.
Cooking Beets. The roots tend to “bleed” when cut, with the staining red juice running everywhere and the sweetness of the vegetable is reduced, so they are mostly cooked whole and unpeeled, with only the tops removed. Wash whole beets carefully, and put them into boiling water. Boil until tender, squeezing to test instead of poking with a fork. When satisfied they are cooked through, remove from heat and put them into a pan of cold water, slipping off the outside. Either serve whole or cut into slices, seasoning with butter, salt, pepper, and a little vinegar if desired. Beets can also be baked in an oven, turning frequently.
Below are period recipes for pickled beets or beet pickles, a staple in the Ingalls and Wilder pantries.
Beet pickles. Boil or bake gently until they are nearly done according to the size of the roots they will require from an hour and a half to two hours; drain them, and when they begin to cool peel and cut in slices half an inch thick, then put them into a pickle composed of black pepper and allspice, of each one ounce, ginger pounded, horse-radish sliced, and salt, of each half an ounce to every quart of vinegar, steeped. Two capsicums may be added to a quart, or one drachm of cayenne. — J.M. Sanderson, The Complete Cook (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1864), pp. 131-32.
Pickled Beets. Cut boiled beets in slices. Lay these in a glass jar or earthen pot. For every beet, put in one slice of onion, one table-spoonful of grated horse-radish, six cloves, and vinegar enough to cover. The beets will be ready to use in ten or twelve hours. They will not keep more than a week. — Maria Parloa, New Cook Book, A Guide to Marketing and Cooking (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1882), 254.
Sweet Pickled Beets. Boil them in a porcelain kettle till quite soft, when cool cut lengthwise to size of a medium cucumber; boil equal parts vinegar and sugar with half a table-spoon ground cloves tied in a cloth to each gallon; pour boiling hot over the beets. — Estelle Woods Wilcox, Buckeye Cookery, And Practical Housekeeping: Compiled From Original Recipes (Minneapolis: Buckeye Pub. Co., 1877), 232.
Pickled Beets. In the fall, when beets are large enough to gather, prepare them for pickling, by boiling in the ordinary way until tender. Remove the skins, and pack closely in stone jars without slicing. Select smooth, medium sized beets, and use small ones for filling in with, so as to pack more closely. While still warm, cover with a mixture made as follows:—To one gallon of best cider vinegar add two quarts of water, two ounces each of whole cloves and stick cinnamon, one ounce of ginger root, one-fourth of an ounce of whole pepper, or six small red peppers, and four pounds of brown sugar. Boil and skim well; pour over the beets while hot; drain off three successive mornings; scald, skim, and pour over the beets. Tie a cloth over the jar, and over the cloth a thick brown paper. This quantity of dressing will cover four gallons of beets. They will keep all winter, if not allowed to freeze. — Mrs. Etta Bock in Journal of Agriculture Cook Book: Competitive Cash Prize Receipts (St. Louis: Journal of Agriculture Co., 1894), 136.
beet (BW 1; FB 20-21; BPC 25; LTP 8, 12; PG)
beet pickles (FB 8; LTP 19)