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A Year That Was Good To Beets

Dec 30, 2011
Originally published on December 30, 2011 4:40 pm

Children hate beets. Many adults hate beets. In fact, so few people in the U.S. eat table beets that the federal government doesn't bother to keep track of how many are grown and sold, even though it does keep track of just about every other crop, including turnip greens and horseradish.

But it turns out that this was a good year for beets (otherwise known as beet roots or garden beets, but not to be confused with sugar beets.)

Some farmers markets say beet sales have surged since January, and they've doubled over the past few years. And it seems like every restaurant across the country serves beets these days — especially the ubiquitous beet salad.

Does all this constitute a beet renaissance? Irwin Goldman says, absolutely, yes. He breeds beets at the University of Wisconsin, where he's a professor of horticulture. He has been waiting for this renaissance for years.

"I think it's just wonderful to see because it's just an incredibly fabulous vegetable that I think is totally underappreciated," he says.

Maybe it's not surprising that chi-chi restaurants have rediscovered beets. Take, for example, the Oval Room across the street from the White House. Sous-chef Tamesha Warren shows how the staff turns beets into art.

Her salad man gently places a red baby beet on the passion fruit squiggle, then a baby golden beet, then a striped one — it's like of row of fantastic marbles. Then he shaves fresh baby horseradish over everything, like baby snowflakes. He adds some herbs — baby, of course — and vinaigrette.

Warren says at one point they tried to get rid of the salad, but clients protested. "So we have to leave it on here," she says. "They might as well put billboards up and say, 'No, don't get rid of the beet salad.'"

Then again, this is Washington, D.C., where people are used to protests. But here's even more compelling evidence that beets are back: They've been showing up in chain restaurants from California Pizza Kitchen to Jamba Juice.

Matt Mandeltort of Technomic analyzes food trends for the food industry. The company's survey found that beets showed up in 13 percent more appetizers in chain restaurants this year, compared to 2010. They've increased more than 55 percent in the last three years.

Mandeltort says beets are becoming more popular partly because they're cheap — or at least cheaper than a lot of vegetables. And restaurants have been struggling to control costs during the recession.

But Goldman, the beet breeder, says remember: People have been eating beets since the times of the Greeks and Romans. They've never gone out of style in Europe. And, "the Australians — they will eat a beet slice on a sandwich like we would eat a tomato," he says.

Goldman would love to make beets that popular here in the U.S. So he has been breeding new varieties to try to capitalize on the current renaissance.

For instance, he's studying the compound that gives beets their distinctive flavor. Geosmin is produced by interactions between microbes in the soil and the roots.

"People hate [these beets] because they taste like dirt," Goldman says. "On the other hand, there are people who embrace them because they taste like dirt, and I think eating dirt or soil, or the smell of soil, is primal."

So Goldman wants to create beets with more geosmin, so they taste dirtier, if that's what you like. He also wants to make other beets that taste less like dirt, so everyone will be happy.

Incidentally, it was a good year not just for beets. Industry surveys show it was also a good year for pretzel rolls and Sriracha. That's the spicy paste from Thailand. And that's another story.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

A lot of people hate beets. In fact, so few people in the U.S. eat table beets that the federal government doesn't bother to keep track of how many are grown or sold. But we heard that beets had actually gained ground in 2011. So for our series A Good Year, we asked NPR's investigative correspondent Daniel Zwerdling to find out if this was indeed a good year for beets.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: So you want to know how I got the dirt on beets? Same way you probably did.

JENNY ROBIE: My name is Jenny Robie, and I'm the executive chef here at Cafe Colette...

DAVID CLANEY: David Claney, Toulouse Cafe and Bar...

MELISSA SMITH: Melissa Smith, I'm the general manager at Cyrano's Cafe.

ZWERDLING: It seems like every restaurant across the country.

CLANEY: ...in Dallas, Texas.

SMITH: It's a subdivision of Saint Louis.

ROBIE: ...in Brooklyn, New York.

ZWERDLING: It seems like every restaurant serves beets these days, especially the ubiquitous beet salad.

ROBIE: The beet salad that we have on the menu is baby beets that have been pie roasted.

CLANEY: ...make a simple vinaigrette...

SMITH: ...then we add a little bit of walnut oil.

CLANEY: We might do a goat cheese crostini.

ROBIE: ...and top it with ricotta salata cheese.

IRWIN GOLDMAN: There is something happening, a beet renaissance.

ZWERDLING: And if anybody should know, it's Irwin Goldman. He breeds beets at the University of Wisconsin. He's been waiting for this renaissance for years.

GOLDMAN: And I think it's just wonderful to see because it's an incredibly fabulous vegetable that I think is totally underappreciated.

ZWERDLING: Maybe it's not surprising that chi-chi restaurants have rediscovered beets. Take the Oval Room across the street from the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PREP)

ZWERDLING: The sous-chef is Tamesha Warren. She showed me how they turn beets into art.

TAMESHA WARREN: So he started to build the plate. He put the passion fruit reduction down first, and then, he's put in the different colors of beets on the plate.

ZWERDLING: Her salad man gently places a baby red beet on the passion fruit squiggle, then a baby golden one, then a striped one. It's like a row of fantastic marbles. Then, he shaves fresh baby horseradish over everything, like baby snowflakes. He adds some herbs - baby, of course - and vinaigrette.

WARREN: People love it. I think we've tried to, like, get rid of it, and it really wasn't received very well. So we have to leave it on here.

ZWERDLING: Really, there was, like, a protest, a demonstration?

WARREN: I mean, they might as well put some billboards up and be like: No, don't get rid of the beet salad.

ZWERDLING: Then again, this is Washington, D.C., where people are used to protests. Here's even more compelling evidence that beets are back. They've been showing up in chain restaurants from California Pizza Kitchen to Jamba Juice.

Matt Mandeltort analyzes food trends for the food industry. He's with a company called Technomic. Their survey found that beets showed up in 13 percent more appetizers in chain restaurants this year, compared to 2010. They've increased more than 55 percent in the past three years.

MATTHEW MANDELTORT: Diners and restaurateurs have discovered that beets bring a lot of things to the table.

ZWERDLING: And, of course, you did not intend that pun.

MANDELTORT: No, of course, not. It's always beets me.

ZWERDLING: Mandeltort says beets are becoming more popular partly because they're cheap or at least cheaper than a lot of vegetables. And restaurants have been struggling to control costs during the recession. But Irwin Goldman says remember: People have been eating beets since the Greeks and Romans. They've never gone out of style in Europe. And have you been to Australia?

GOLDMAN: The Australians, they will eat a beet slice on a sandwich like we would eat a tomato. Can I read you just a quote from Tom Robbins about beets?

ZWERDLING: Tom Robbins? And where did he write about beets?

GOLDMAN: This is from "Jitterbug Perfume," which is a book that Tom Robbins wrote largely about beets, and he said that Slavic people get their physical characteristics from the potato, their smoldering inquietude from radishes and their seriousness from beets.

ZWERDLING: Incidently, it was a good year not just for beets. Industry survey show it was also a good year for pretzel rolls and Sriracha. That's the spicy paste from Thailand, and that's another story. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.