What a root vegetable taught me about my identity
by Sophie Javna; illustration by Sarah Ross
Three hours into the morning, after crouching in the dirt and marinating in sweat, a series of thoughts began to surface: I hate beets. I loathe beets. Beets are the bane of my existence.
That day, like many of my days as a summer intern at Venetucci Farm, I was weeding, harvesting, bunching, washing and crating beets.
Many of the beets I harvested that summer at Venetucci were bound for the Wednesday farmer’s market at Ivywild School or the Saturday market outside of a restaurant called the Margarita at Pine Creek. They looked lovely when they were cleaned up and presented on a table-clothed surface at the Saturday market. I sometimes found myself marveling at their colors.
A variety I found particularly amazing was called Chioggia or Candy Stripe. Their roots were either bright white or florescent pink, and their striped stems coordinated with the pink and white of the root. The colors reminded me of a birthday cake. Other shoppers seemed to agree; I saw the beets’ deep purples and vibrant pinks catch many a customer’s eye at Venetucci’s Saturday market booth.
Damn beets. The row of Chioggias I had harvested that day on the farm lay in a pile at the end of the row, waiting to be bunched for market on Saturday. They did not sparkle. They looked like ugly clumps of dirt. I refocused to finish out the row in time to wash them and bring them to market. One way to know whether or not beets are ready to harvest is by peeking at the base of the stem to see if the top of the root pops out of the soil. The next clue is to look at the thickness of the stems—juicy stems might indicate a bigger root. But both methods could easily fail; either the root hides in the depths of the soil without giving one hint as to its size, or the beet is underdeveloped, despite a fat stem.
Trying my luck anyway, I sashayed down the row, caught a glimpse of a nice looking beet and pulled it. A grimy brown clump came out, swinging by its greens, and I saw that it was three sizes too small. If a big beet is the size of an orange, this was the size of a tangerine. I tossed it in the growing pile of other mistakenly pulled runts. I hate beets.
I haven’t always felt anger towards vegetables. In fact, I used to feel real affection for them. Despite forcing my mother to melt cheese and squirt ketchup on my broccoli as a kid, by the middle of high school I had developed an appreciation for vegetables. I remember leaving class and going straight to the local farmer’s market every Tuesday. Roaming the aisles at the market started off as an excuse to steal samples, but I slowly began to enjoy the diversity of colors, shapes and smells. I started buying produce for home. I obsessed over the sweetness of vegetables like carrots, tomatoes and radishes. Compared to the produce we bought at the supermarket, these tasted like candy.
My obsession with food inspired me to start cooking, which fueled my desire to discover more strange and beautiful produce. When I came to CC, I became involved with food clubs on campus and activists in the community. Although I still loved to cook, my focus shifted to learning about the ways in which social injustice in Colorado Springs is tied to food production and access. I started considering a career in the realm of food justice, especially in farmer advocacy. Before looking into a future career, I knew I needed to spend more time on farms, so I decided to look for a farm internship. The thought intimidated me. After all, the only real experience I had was working on a small school garden in high school. But I wanted to learn about how to work the land and regain the joy I felt in high school when I discovered new colors and flavors at the market. I wanted to spend time with the carrots, tomatoes and radishes, because I had such fond memories of their sweetness. Now, I could help them thrive. Vegetables were beautiful to me, and this was a chance to offer my services to them.
Well, I got what I’d wanted. But, as I gathered up my Chioggias in armfuls to put in crates and take to the washing station, the beets I held did not exude a majestic glow. They were piled up haphazardly, brown with dirt and wilted-looking.
“I’m too hot! Put me back in the ground nowww!” I almost heard them whine. Yes, I had wanted to give vegetables care and attention. But I hadn’t realized just how constant a vegetable’s need for care and attention is. They don’t mind if you have to kneel in a pile of dirt all day to give it to them.
One night over the summer my friend and I got to talking about the farm. She asked me about the process for harvesting beets—it’s as simple as pulling it out of the dirt by its greens. All of the varieties I’d been working with—Chioggia, Cylindra, Early Wonder—were differently shaped and colored and there was a particular way of telling when each variety was ready to harvest. I remember her eyes growing wide and her head shaking in wonder.
“Isn’t that kind of a miracle?” she asked with a smile. I couldn’t agree.
“Umm to be honest, they’re really just a huge pain in the ass,” I replied. My answer took me by surprise. The realization that vegetables were no longer miraculous to me felt very real and very distressing. I was losing something that had defined me since high school. Food wasn’t just something I ate; it inspired me to be active in my community. It opened me up to sensory experiences as well as intellectual and social issues. Through food, I felt I could make people happy. I felt I could make a difference. It was a part of my identity, and the prospect of losing it scared me.
Two months into my internship I attended a Venetucci Starlight Dinner. Every summer the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, the organization that owns Venetucci, promotes the farm through a series of elaborate, multi-course dinners. They bring in star chefs from around Colorado Springs and ask them to use produce, meat and dairy primarily from the farm. The dinner I attended was the first one of the summer and had sold out. I needed a little break from the field and wanted to enjoy being at Venetucci in a relaxed atmosphere, so I dressed up and joined the rest of the guests that evening to celebrate the farm. After schmoozing for a while, everyone settled at their tables for the first course. Servers appeared at the tables. A clean white plate clinked as it was placed in front of me. On the plate was a neat stack of beets, sliced and placed on top of one another in a line. They were framed by a beautiful smear of purple balsamic and topped with goat cheese and honey. At that moment, I couldn’t hold in my laughter. Seeing the beets so elegantly arranged when just that morning I had been rinsing the mud off of them was absolutely hilarious. I looked at the beets. I laughed some more.
The beets dripped with deep purple juice when I speared them with my fork. They tasted sweet and earthy, delicately flavored with honey and a little bit of orange zest. Delicious. I used to long for this kind of sensual experience with food, but I couldn’t just focus on taste and color anymore. In my mind’s eye, I pictured the beets wilting in the sun. I felt my joints ache from harvesting them all day. The thought that I hate beets crept into my mind. I couldn’t block out what I knew about beets. I couldn’t unfeel the feeling of pulling out a runt and angrily throwing it in a pile. But this time, the realization didn’t scare me. I felt that what I had learned about beets was important and that it gave me another angle from which to see and understand them.
Back on the farm the next day, I found myself crouching over a row of Cylindras. As their name suggests, they are long and cylindrical as opposed to spherical. They jut out of the dirt even more than the Chioggias, which makes them easier to pull.
What am I going to do with all of this excessive knowledge about beets? I asked myself while weeding around the base of a beet. Even with all of the knowledge I accumulated at Venetucci, I still didn’t feel like I understood beets better than I had before. I just understood them differently. Although they hadn’t helped me resolve my struggle with my identity, they had helped me experience myself in a new way by pushing me into a place of discomfort. Intimacy—even intimacy with a vegetable—necessitates discovery and a shift in perspective. It is not always a comfortable place to be.
Neither is crouching over a row of beets in the blazing hot afternoon sun, I thought. But here I am.